During the Ottoman era, leading up to the early 20th century, education was provided under the supervision of mosques and churches. In general, only boys attended this, at least so was the case with Muslim schools. Girls received their education within the family and the neighbourhood, being instructed in household skills and crafts. Around 1920, only about 10% of the total population were literate.
The decisive reform for today's education system of Turkey dates back to 1924, when Atatürk placed all schools under the jurisdiction of the state, removed the religious curriculum and made primary education compulsory and free. The actual implementation would take long time, it was first in the 1980's that the infrastructure corresponded to Atatürk's goals.
Parallel to the building of a general primary school, serious measures were taken in building a system of universities and other institutions of higher learning.
Until 1997, compulsory education in Turkey was shorter than in most other countries, only 5 years. This year, it was then extended to 8 years. Also, a reform to reduce the size of classes was introduced, from an average of 50 to an average of 30. More teaching hours were allocated to foreign languages and computer training.
Expenditure on education was estimated at 4.0% of GDP in 2004, which in 2008 figures correspond to $500/capita. Turkey has also received funds from the World Bank, which since the 1970's has provided funds for industrial training and other nonformal vocational training.
Major campaigns to combat illiteracy have been conducted since 1980, especially aiming at those between ages 14 and 44, secondly on women and people in the countryside. The campaigns appear to have been successful, illiteracy is now almost down to 10%, compared to about 20% at the start.
Low skills of Turkey's labour force have motivated a wide range of adult education and vocational programs. These have aimed at improving skills of specialists, and providing basic training for non-specialists. The World Bank has been instrumental in these programs. The implementation of these programs in eastern Turkey has been halted since the early 1990's due to the regional conflict.
Turkey provides basic, specialized education for children with disabilities.
Voluntary pre-schools are offered from the age of 4, lasting 3 years, but are rarely available outside cities. These programs have not been very popular, many families have mothers at home, and the traditional emphasis of the family does not correspond well with state upbringing. In recent years, pre-schools have started to be more and more popular. Still, less than 10% of Turkish children pass through these schools.
Primary education is compulsory and free for all children living in Turkey. Primary education starts at the age of 6, but there are schools where children start at the age of 7. This lasts 8 years, divided into 5 years primary, 3 years. Practically all children attend primary school today, but there are rural areas with small percentage of non-attendance, and then this usually affects girls. The curriculum is secular.
There are significant differences in quality between schools and teachers, and not necessarily from city to countryside. Many schools have their capacity overstretched to the point that some pupils attend morning school, other afternoon school.
Turkish children use school uniforms, usually in blue or black. Private schools are free to have their own uniforms. Parents are required to provide uniforms, and pens and notebooks.
There are private schools that offer a real alternative to the public system. Many consider public schools to be inferior, choosing the private sector to secure the best possible education for their children. About 5% of Turkish children attend private schools.
The school day is begun with a pledge spoken out in chorus, and every Monday morning and Friday afternoon there is flag ceremony in the school yard with all present.
Upon finishing primary schools, pupils will be awarded with the Ilköğretim Diplomasi (Basic Education Diploma).
Secondary education in Turkey is free for all and usually lasts 4 years. Schools at this level is called either High school or Lycee. About 55-60% of all in the right age attend. Secondary education is divided into three braches. About 6 out 10 chose the General; 3 out of 10 Vocational and Technical; and 1 out of 10 the Islamic (it is called Religious, but it offers no course in any other religion).
The General is a normal secondary education preparing for higher education. The curriculum is secular, and the first year all pupils follow the same courses. From the second year they specialize, and chose between 4 directions: Turkish language and Mathematics; Science; Social Sciences; and Languages. All pupils will have to learn a Western language, and can chose between English, French and German.
Some General lycees are bilingual, teaching in Turkish and either English, French or German. There are 12 lycees with special courses for students of the legally recognized minorities, Armenians, Greeks and Jews, where some subjects are taught in Armenian or Greek language.
Upon finishing secondary education, pupils take a finishing exam, which successfully awards the Lise Diplomasi degree. This degree gives, however, no direct entry to universities. It only secures the right to partake in the nationwide exams for university entry (see under Higher education).
There are also private General secondary schools, which aim at providing a more advanced pedagogical program than the public ones. There is a fee paid for attendance to these schools, at around $5,000 a year. Private schools offer tuition on a foreign language, which is obtained during a one year prep class.
Vocational programs vary between 3 and 4 years, covering fields like technical training; domestic subjects; teacher-training; auxiliary health care; commerce and administration; agriculture.
Islamic oriented secondary schools, called Imam hatip okullari, have programs based upon the General but with great emphasis on Islam and Muslim values. These aim at training candidates for higher religious training, dedicated higher institutions, but only a very small percentage follow this direction.
Turkey has more than 60 public universities, in addition to the many private. In all, there are more than 1,300 institutions of higher learning. Public universities are not entirely free, there is a small tuition fee paid every year.
Entry to universities are decided from a nationwide exam, the Student Selection Exam, the ÖSS. These exams have become highly competitive, not only to get entry to the best universities, but simply there are only room for about 30-40% every year. Many who fails the ÖSS the first year, make a new try the following year.
The Turkish university system is considered to be of good by international standard, but quality varies a lot. Major universities, as in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, holds normal high standards. As many as 750,000 students attend higher education, of which 16,000 are foreign citizens.
Universities have 3 levels of degrees, all received after about 2 years of study. The lowest is Önlisans Diplomasi, but this is not considered a completed degree, it is expected that students continue 2 more years to obtain the Lisans Diplomasi, which corresponds to a Bachelor's. Further studies of 1.5 or 2-5 years of specialization leads to the Yüksek Lisans Diplomasi, which corresponds to a Master's degree.
Turkish law prohibits all university teachers and students from belonging to or working for a political party and requires curricular standardization at all universities.
There are also 16 Islamic Theological Lycees, with about 2,000 students.