To Which Direction Does the Education Policy of Ak Party Change?

To Which Direction Does the Education Policy of Ak Party Change?[1]

It came quite as a surprise when AK Party government, which had taken important policy steps towards strengthening the eight-year “uninterrupted” compulsory education system since it assumed power in 2002, proposed the “4+4+4” system and reintroduction of education stages within primary education. Thus, a reevaluation of AK Party’s education policies became necessary. In this article, I aim to discuss whether “4+4+4” and other policies the party embarked since 2011 elections should be regarded as a rupture in education policy or not. To be able to do that, I will first present a conceptual framework through which the variance of how governments perceive education and how they make policies in this area can be better understood. Then, the experience of AK Party in formulating education policies in last 10 years will be evaluated. Lastly, based on this evaluation, I will speculate on the direction AK Party will take in the future in formulating education policies.

Conceptual Framework

In modern states, governments usually formulate education policies based on their cultural policies. The main aim of culture-based education policies is raising “acceptable” citizens and creating a social structure. Character education, personality education and values education are prominent concepts used frequently in the formulation (and implementation) of this kind of education policies which are usually employed in the foundation periods of modern states and in the reconfiguration and restructuring periods after military coups.[2]

Education may also be perceived by governments as a component of the economic system. In this case, governments would envision an economic model for the future of the society and regard education as a tool for creating the human resources required by this economic model. This may be a priority of the education policies in different periods, yet there are findings on a new shape economy-oriented education policies took in the era of neoliberalism. Stephen Ball argues that the distinguishing factors of education policies based on neoliberal economic policies are as follows:

  • In policy documents, the aim of education policies is described as “responding the requirements international competition”,
  • Social and cultural benefits of education are increasingly ignored,
  • There are frequent references to an “information society” in policy documents,
  • International organizations such as the World Bank, OECD and the European Union assume important roles in the formulation of education policies.
  • Reform technologies of business administration and performance managements are adapted to education contexts.[3]

Education policies can also be formulated as an instrument of social policy, aiming to ameliorate social inequalities through schools. In an education policy in which social justice is emphasized, one should expect an increase in the access to lower stages of education such as pre-primary and primary education, especially in the access of disadvantaged children, and formulation of catch-up education programs for these children.[4]

The categories formed in this conceptual framework leads to the question whether education policies should always be grounded on the priorities of another policy area. It is at least conceptually possible to create an autonomous space for education policies and formulate them with education specific priorities (such as “what is the best way to learn for a child?”). This requires education policies to be formulated as a result of research and development activities undertaken by actors within the education system. Thus, the argument goes, education system can avoid being a passive system and become an “active” sub-system within the society.[5]

Needless to say, governments should not be expected to select only one of these policy areas when formulating education policies. Governments may reach different “education policy mixes” using priorities of these four different policy areas (or of other areas not mentioned in this conceptual framework). Moreover, the policy areas mentioned in this framework are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Pursuing both economic and social priorities in formulating a policy is, within political conditions, up to the creativity of a government.

One also needs to emphasize that this framework should only be used for understanding the formulation phase of education policies. The implementation phase can include much more complex processes and produce results that are different from the aims of the policy. Thus, the formulation and implementation phases of education policies should be evaluated separately.

In the following pages, I aim to understand how, since its foundation in 2001, AK Party perceives the education system and how it formulates policies affecting this system. To this end, I will use official documents such as party programs, election manifestos and government programs. Through critical evaluation of these documents, I aim to reach insights on which policy areas AK Party prioritized when formulating education policies and for which policy area AK Party instrumentalized the education system.

Education Policies of the AK Party: From 2001 to 2011 Election

In the 2001 Party Program which was adopted right after the foundation, education was described as “the most important component of development in all areas” and it was stressed that “societies which cannot use human resources efficiently are obliged their chances to compete”. In the program, clear cues towards the “4+4+4” system are discernible: “Mandatory education will be reformed so that it will be organized ‘in stages’, enable choice and guidance, and will be increased from eight to eleven years. Beginning from the fifth year of basic education, elective courses will be introduced and students will be guided to general and vocational tracks based on their interests and talents.”[6]

The election manifesto that was prepared by the AK Party for November 2002 elections did not include any development-oriented education policy or rearrangement of mandatory education. This manifesto stated that “the sources and solutions of problems are experiencing now lie in the education system” and the main aim of the education system should be “raising generations who have a free mind, a free conscience and a free reasoning”, referring to a famous saying of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.[7] The Program of the 58th Government which was prepared by the AK Party after winning the election emphasized the cultural function of the education system: In the beginning of the “Education” part, it was stated that “the conversation of cultural values that define us is the basic policy of the government”. One aim of the education policy would be functionalizing religious education within the framework of laicism.[8]

Beginning with the Program of the 59th Government, which was formed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in March 2003 taking over the post of the prime minister from Abdullah Gül, the emphasis on the economic aspect of education began to increase. The parts of the party program on education being an important determinant of competitiveness of the country and its economic aspects were copy-pasted, whereas the intention to rearrange mandatory education was left outside. [9] This tendency to emphasize the economic aspect of education usually went in the following policy documents as well. In the election manifesto which was prepared for election 2007, the aim of the education was described as “increasing the quality of human resources and bringing the level of our human capital to modern standards”. This manifesto also stated that mandatory education will be increased ‘in stages’ to 12 years.[10]

According to the Program of the 60th Government, which was formed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the aftermath of the 2007 election, education is, in addition to being an instrument towards development and global competition, a period for constituting a character and an identity. The elements of the identity foreseen for children are “compatibility with self and the outer environment, social and cultural values and social belongingness”. [11] In the manifesto prepared for 2011 elections and in the program of the 61st government, both of which were prepared in 2011, the aim of the education was described as raising the necessary human resources for development and global competition.[12]

The investigation of official party documents suggest that, between 2001 and 2011, and especially beginning with the government program in which Erdoğan first became the prime minister, education policies were, at least at the discourse level, to be formulated with reference to economic policies. In this period, Ministry of National Education took steps to strengthen eight-year primary education. The curriculum reform, incentivization of access to education through conditional cash transfers,[13] organization of large-scale home visits through the “Girls, Let’s Go to the School” to increase access in which the education bureaucracy played a major role, are the primary examples of these steps. These policies suggest that in this period, disadvantaged children were prioritized and social policies became prominent in the making of education policies. The extension of basic education and implementation of special measures to enable all students benefit from basic education are also among the policies recommended by the World Bank and the OECD to governments due to their economic benefits.[14] Another characteristic of the period is the increased prominence of international organizations in the formulation of education policies through various campaigns and projects. The World Bank with its support to the conditional cash transfers, UNICEF through its support to the campaigns and policies to increase access and the European Union with its support to enhance vocational education gained prominence in the formulation of education policies, especially at the central organization of MoNE.

To sum up, the references to “global competition” and “raising human resources” in official policy documents of the AK Party and collaboration with international organizations suggest that, following Ball’s analysis, economic perspective played the most important role in the formulation of education policies. Social policy point of view also played a role, exemplified by the efforts to increase access of disadvantaged students to primary education and increase general access to pre-primary education. Emphasis on culture, although it had some place in the official documents of the AK Party, did not have much prominence in the formulation of education policies.

2011 Election and “4+4+4”

In the policy documents prepared for 2011 elections, AK Party was still pointing to education policies whose main aim should be enhancing the human capital and contributing to the economic competitiveness of the country. Yet, during the election campaigns and in the immediate aftermath, education policies became a priority for the government and the party. Arguably, the criticism towards the party on the lack of major progress in the education sector (an improvement similar to that in the health services) since the party came to power may explain this shift. Even in closer circles to AK Party, the government was being criticized as there was no alleviation of the pressure examination systems and quality issues in education created and most severely felt by the middle classes. The promise on giving a tablet computer to each student, which was delivered during the election campaign by Erdogan, is one of the most important indicators of the prioritization of education policies. The other and the more important indicator is the appointment of Ömer Dinçer, who is known as a reformist and for his proximity to the Prime Minister, as the Minister of National Education. A decree which was prepared and published by Dinçer in the early weeks of his ministerial period reorganized the structure of the central organization of the Ministry and renewed the executive staff. The decree was justified as a way to create “a governance structure which would deliver global competitiveness by monitoring international developments”.

As AK Parti made education policies a priority, Ömer Dinçer was one of the most appropriate persons to sustain an economic policy-oriented education policy. Dinçer himself saw education system as an instrument to improve human capital so that the country can compete at the global level. In addition, his policy agenda included measures inspired by the free market technologies such as performance management, subsidizing private schools and acquisition of school buildings via public-private partnerships. In his speeches, he was supporting the improvement of vocational and technical education as a requirement of the knowledge economy, but favored the postponement of it in terms of age. [15]

As the Ministry was trying to implement this agenda, in February 2012, a bill was proposed by the AK Party to the Parliament which foresaw reintroduction of stages to the “uninterrupted” eight-year primary education. The first version of the bill proposed two four-year stages instead of one eight-year primary education, allowing some high schools to establish schools for the second four-year stage of primary education and starting distance education and vocational education at the 5th grade. Thus, this rearrangement did not only propose to introduce stages in primary education, but also allow for distance education and vocational education at the 5th grade/at the age of 9-10, i.e. decreasing compulsory formal education effectively to four years. This version of the bill garnered huge criticisms from civil society organizations, which argued that this reorganization of the education system would lead to decrease in the access of disadvantaged groups such as girls and children with disabilities.[16] AK Party did not insist on these articles of the bill. During the course of parliamentary meetings, the bill became much clearer on the reestablishment of middle schools and religious middle schools (imam-hatip ortaokulları), and introduction of religious education electives both in middle schools and high schools. This version of the bill was passed by the Parliament and approved by the President in April 2012. On another note, pre-primary education which was proved to be effective in combating economic and social inequalities through numerous scientific studies, was not made free of charge and/or compulsory although many civil society organizations requested.[17]

The “4+4+4” law led to numerous and immediate changes to the education such as change of the starting age for primary school, restructuring of primary education institutions as primary schools, middle schools and imam-hatip middle schools, introduction of elective courses, and launching mandatory secondary education (high schools). MoNE saw this as an opportunity to renew weekly class schedules as well. As a result, as the weekly course load of primary schools (1st-4th grades) was lightened, course load of middle schools (5th-8th grades) and weekly hours of mathematics and science were increased. In addition to the electives such as “Koran” and “Life of the Prophet” which were named by the law directly, “Applications of Mathematics” and “ICT Literacy” were also introduced. MoNE advocated these additional changes which were not foreseen by the law as steps necessary to increase point averages of Turkey in international assessments such as PISA and strengthen its human capital.[18] On another note, MoNE did not allow vocational high schools to establish middle schools, although there was an opening for that in the law. Thus, vocational education was not set to start at the age of nine.[19] While “4+4+4” debate was going on, PM Erdoğan announced that the examination system for entering high schools and dershanes (private tutorial centers) will be abolished. This announcement which was delivered apparently not in collaboration with the Ministry, led once more to a shift in the agenda of the Ministry and created yet another burden on the shoulders of the Ömer Dinçer.

There is certainly a new kind of activity in education policy formulation in the aftermath of the 2011 elections. In this period, policy ideas or initiatives did not stem from the bureaucrats but directly from high-level politicians such as the PM and the Minister himself. Prime Minister is part of the education policy debate as much as he never was in the last decade [20]. Installation of the religious education directly to the center of the system, increased clout of “values education” in the education policy circles and preparations by the Ministry to make some changes in this area, can be interpreted as indicators of the fact that education policies will be increasingly made in reference to the cultural policy. On the other hand, the renewal of weekly schedules based on other (mostly Western) countries’ systems, and the steps taken towards postponement of vocational education and devolution to the private sector, can be seen as an indicator of an effort to synthesize economic and cultural understandings of education policy making.

New Policies, New Minister?

At the time of writing this piece, one week had passed since Nabi Avcı was appointed as the new Minister of National Education. Therefore, it was not easy to foresee what kind of policy shift should be expected as a result of this replacement. Yet, dismissal of a prominent figure who as a minister insisted on economy-oriented education policies can be seen as an indicator of a transition towards education policies with more references to cultural policy. It is important to see how the new minister will formulate and implement policies in the areas which are clearly prioritized by the PM, such as allocation of tablet computers and creating a transition system to secondary education which is not based on exams.

Can “4+4+4” and other policy changes following the 2011 elections be seen as a “rupture” in education policies? As shown in the previous sections of this article, AK party intended to rearrange basic education with electives in 5th grade even in its party program of 2001. Thus, “4+4+4” was not a policy initiative the party formulated just before the proposal of the bill to the Parliament. Yet, beginning from the government program in 2003, economic policy-oriented education policies were formulated at least at the discourse level, references to the religious education were substantially decreased, and “4+4+4” was not mentioned in policy documents. In the aftermath of 2011, education policies became a priority area for the government. In the new party program which was entitled Vizyon 2023, education policies were discussed under the new title “Education and Culture”. New policies and increased references to “culture” should thus be interpreted in this context as a result of the fact that policies now stem directly from the government and not from bureaucracy, international organizations and civil society. [21] In that sense, there is a substantial change in the education policy formulation by the government, even if it could be overfetched to label it as a “rupture”.

Aytuğ Şaşmaz, Education Reform Initiative, Sabancı University, İstanbul 

Please cite this publication as follows:

Şaşmaz, Aytuğ (April, 2013), “To Which Direction Does the Education Policy of Ak Party Change?”, Vol. II, Issue 2, pp.40-47, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (

[1] The research for this article was undertaken for the conference entitled “Understanding Turkey’s Education Policy” organized by the Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey) and METU Department of Public Administration. I thank the organizers and participants of this conference. While thinking about the issue, I especially benefited from the presentation delivered by Assis. Prof. Mustafa Kemal Bayırbağ. Several ideas I discussed in this article were previously discussed with Evren Aydoğan, Burcu Baykurt, Sevin Turan, Alper Yağcı and Volkan Yılmaz, and needless to say, with my colleagues at Education Reform Initiative. I would like to thank them all. I need to emphasize that all mistakes and misjudgments in the article are mine. Moreover, the findings and opinions I use in this article do not reflect the stance of Education Reform Initiative.

[2] For instance, the aim of the education policies in Peru after the military coup was set as “creation of the free man and new Peruvian society”. For a discussion of these policies, see W. Haddad, Education policy-planning process: An applied framework, 1995.

[3] Stephen Ball, The Education Debate, 2008.

[4] Education policies can also be formulated, at least in passive forms, to reinforce social inequalities. In Britain, Thatcherite education policies were encountered with such a criticism. It is controversial whether education policies reinforcing social inequalities can also be regarded as social-policy-oriented education policies or not.

[5] Aşkar emphasizes this approach to education policies. See Petek Aşkar, “Edilgenlikten Etkenliğe”, Eğitim İzleme Raporu 2010, 2011. One can argue that this way of formulating education policies is not different from grounding them in social policies. Yet, an education policy which aims to acquire the highest learning performance from students may ignore the disadvantages children may have and thus not always have an emphasis on social justice. The education system in Germany can be regarded as largely shaped by these kind of policies.

[6], date of access: December 2012. It was confirmed that relevant articles of this program was not changed after 2001, through various news stories in websites (as an example see: ‘In stages’ is being used as opposed to ‘uninterrupted’ eight-year education introduced by 1997 Basic Education Reform.

[7] To reach the 2002 Election Manifesto click “Seçim Beyannamesi 2002” on Date of access: January 2013.

[8], date of access: January 2013.

[9], date of access: January 2013.

[10], date of access: January 2013. ‘In stages’ in this sentence can mean both reintroduction of educational stages within the first 8 years of K12 education or an incremental transition from eight-year compulsory education to 12-year compulsory education.

[11], date of access: January 2013.

[13] “Conditional cash transfers” are a program which foresees regular payments to mothers if, beginning from pregnancy, they attend regular medical controls and their children attend school regularly. Payments were first undertaken through the Social Risk Mitigation Project implemented in collaboration with the World Bank in the aftermath of the 2001-2002 economic crisis. Later, the program was overtaken by the Turkish Government and payments were made through the Fund to Incentivize Social Assistance and Solidarity.

[14] Especially the OECD recommends governments to extend basic education as much as possible so that they can overcome social inequalities and the children can gain basic life skills and knowledge which are contemplated to gain importance in the upcoming “knowledge society” era. This recommendation also entails that students are not tracked to different programs in the course of basic education. Especially see: OECD, Equity and Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, 2012. Although the (main) aim of 1997 Reform in Turkey was making primary education “uninterrupted” and thus shut down the lower secondary religious schools (imam-hatip ortaokulları), the additional benefits were extension of basic primary education and the postponement of tracking students to different programs (and vocational education) from the 5th to the 8th grade.

[15] Especially see: Speech Ömer Dinçer delivered during the opening of Vocational Education Workshop in Antalya, Feb. 24, 2012. MoNE, Mesleki Eğitim Çalıştayı Raporu, 2013.

[16] Education Reform Initiative (Eğitim Reformu Girişimi), Flying Broom Women’s Communication and Research Association (Uçan Süpürge Kadın İletişim ve Araştırma Derneği) and Agenda: Child! Association (Gündem Çocuk Derneği), are examples of these NGOs.

[17] For the details of the process since the proposal of the bill “4+4+4” see: Aytuğ Şaşmaz, “4+4+4: Turning education system upside down”, Perspectives, No: 1, 2012.

[18] PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is an international examination of students which is undertaken by the OECD every three years. A sample of students from each participant country which is statistically representative of 15-year-old students takes the exam and thus the general status and learning performance of 15-year-old students in this country is identified. Since its first cycle in 2000, PISA has become one of the most important tools which provides data and information for researchers and decision-makers. For an evaluation of Turkey’s results in PISA 2009, see Aytuğ Şaşmaz and Nihan Köseleci-Blanchy, PISA 2009: Where Does Turkey Stand?, Turkish Policy Quarterly, 2011.

[19] Education Reform Initiative, “4+4+4 Düzenlemesi ile Neler Değişti? Yeni Sisteme Geçişte Neler İzlenmeli?”, 2012.

[20] On the increasing role of executives in formulation of education policies and the possible reasons thereof, see: J. Henig, “Mayors, Governors, and Presidents: The New Education Executives and the End of Educational Exceptionalism”, Peabody Journal of Education: Issues of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations, Vol. 84, No. 3.

[21], date of access: January 2013. The document also states that education is the most important element of development and knowledge economy.



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One thought on “To Which Direction Does the Education Policy of Ak Party Change?

  1. Aysan Sari

    Tek parti iktidarı istikrar getirir diyenler bu yazıyı okusun! Eğitimi sistemini 10 yılda ne hale getirdiler görsünler!


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