Adult literacy in Turkey

UNESCO defines literacy as :”the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”.

The historical and political context of adult literacy in Turkey
Fevziye Sayilan &Ahmet Yildiz


The aim of this article is to analyse the development of adult literacy education in Turkey in a historical and political context. The development of adult literacy education is studied in three different historical periods. To spread literacy and create novel institutions, although these institutions were closed later, played a critical role in the formation of modern Turkey. During the whole history of modern Turkey, five great mass literacy campaigns were organised. After this period of construction, later in the period of rapid social change adult literacy education was institutionalised as non‐formal education within Ministry of National Education and literacy education was defined as a public service. Literacy education still continues to be a public service during the neo liberal transformation period. Today illiteracy is still an important problem. Because of the regional, class and gender inequalities in education, illiteracy turned into being a chronic and structural problem. Therefore the solution of the problem necessitates positive action politics and more support.


1. The population of Turkey in the year 1927 stood at 13,648,000. The number of literate people within this population is 1,120,000 and the number of illiterate people is 12,528,000. As a proportion the rate of literate people is 8.9%, whereas the rate of illiterate people is 91.1% (Öztürk 2004, 48). It can also be seen that when Istanbul and Izmir districts in which the minorities were concentrated and the district of Ankara in which civil servants were abundant are left out, the rate of literate people in the remaining 60 provinces is 6.6%. And the research of Başgöz and Wilson (1968) describes the scene concerning the conditions of the schools: in the 1923–1924 school year, a student body, the number of which is estimated to be between 6000–18,000, were studying in approximately 480 madrasahs. There were around 4894 primary schools, 72 rushdiyas (the old institution in the place of secondary school) and 22 idadis (the historical counterpart of high schools) which could be accounted as secular. 342,000 (perhaps 20% of the child population who should go to school), 5900 and 2900 students were enrolled in these schools respectively. The number of students enrolled in higher education is 2900.

2. According to Kafadar (1997) the period of the Republic up to 1950 can be labeled as ‘the period of primary school’. While the number of primary schools, which was 4894 in the 1923–1924 school year has risen to 10,596 in the 1940–1941 school year, the number of enrolled students has risen from 341,941 to 955,947 during the same period (Akyüz 1993: 304).

3. The unification of the education code was accepted in 1924. By this law the Ottoman system of education which contained mainly religious but modern schools also was ended and the control of all the schools was given to the Ministry of National Education and religious school and institutions were closed.

4. The lessons in Millet Mekteps were organized in periods of four months and took place in the evenings. There have been two classes in these courses. In the A class the literacy education was more emphasized whereas B class was more centered on reading, composition, calculation, measures, health education and national knowledge. More than 1.5 million adults have received a certificate from Millet Mekteps during 1928–1950. Nevertheless, the most intense working period of the movement is the first 5–10 years (Akyüz 1993: 351).

5. The rise in the number of schools in villages has overcome the decline in the impetus of Millet Mekteps so that the rise in the rate of literate population kept continuing. According to the 4274 numbered Law for the Organization of Village Institutes and Schools in Villages, the schools in villages had assumed public education while realizing the education of the students on the one hand. With all the efforts that these schools have made, the rate of the previous 10 years have been kept intact and the rate of literate population has risen from 22.4 to 33.6 in the 10 years that have passed from 1940 to 1950.

6. The army has a double impact on the subject of literacy because it has continual practices within its own body on the one hand and it has another effect through the mass mobilizations following the military interventions. Army has been the main institution which provides the basic education to the adult population in the initial stages of the Republic (and it also partially continues to be so today). Because a large majority of the population was living in the rural areas and because the level of education was low in these places, most of the base ranks recruited in the army were illiterate (Arayıcı 1999: 160). This is why since 1928 the army played an active role in teaching the young men how to read and write during their military service, presenting them with elementary knowledge and providing some with trades. The army has opened up 16 ‘Private‐literacy schools’. These schools were opened for 15 years according to the 291 numbered Law. They were shut down in the year 1975 at the end of this time period (Bülbül 1991: 257).

The number of rank soldiers who have been educated in and achieved a certificate of success in these TAF (Turkish Armed Forces) organized courses has exceeded 480,000 from 1959 to the end of the year 1972. And the rate of success is around 77%. Even though a ‘General Culture Education’ program was prepared in order to continue the education during the services of the soldiers who have attended literacy schools or learned how to read and write beforehand but did not have any further education, it was never implemented (Geray, 2002: 258). A total of 532,266 privates have attained education until the end of the year 1975 when the legal timeframe ran out for these schools. 392,277 out of these have graduated showing success; the unsuccessful continued the reading and writing practice in their own brigades. If we consider that MONE (Ministry of National Education) has thought how to read and write to 577,111 adults, this is an important number (Günlü 2005: 83).

Today, with the cooperation protocol signed between MONE and Commandership of General Staff, literacy courses are opened up in all the brigades. TAF is determining the illiterate privates and the public education centers are providing the course material and teacher; and then imparting a literacy document to those who succeed (Nohl and Sayılan 2004: 11).

7. Contrary to the single party period, DP (the Democratic Party) has advocated a political line in favor of economic liberalism, rather than the economy which has been statist, strictly controlled and was tending towards self‐sufficiency. A great economic progress was attained during the initial years of the government. This progress was achieved through a great amount of American aid (Zurcher 2004).

8. Following the date of 17 July 1962, the Ministry of National Education Public Education General Directorate, ‘People’s Learning Houses (Halk Dershanes) Code and Temporary Curriculum’ program ran into force (on 6 August 1962) (Journal of Communications, 6 August 1963: quoted in Günlü 2005: 95). According to the rules of this code people’s learning houses were opened and administered by governors. The teachers who would serve in people’s learning houses and the education program are provided by directorates of national education. The code has also brought the governors the obligation to open learning houses in order to educate and inform the highest possible number of citizens (Günlü 2005: 95). The public learning houses have been divided into three groups as A, B and C. In the program of learning house A, reading, writing simple letters, punctuation and four mathematical functions within the number which could answer people’s daily needs were taught. The program of learning house B is one followed by those who have completed learning house A. The subjects of reading and writing, punctuation, mathematics and information on health and citizenship were taught in this program. In learning house program C, preparations for primary school qualification exams in order to cover the subjects included within the primary school curriculum (Günlü 2005: 95).

9. The functional literacy program which was accepted by UNESCO in the 1965 Tehran Conference was carried out in Turkey as a pilot project for 20 months during the years 1971–1973 with the aid provided by World Education Organization and US; with the provision to open up 50 literacy courses in Ankara, Kars, Muğla and Sinop and teach approximately 1000 adults functional literacy and then assess the results. Nevertheless in application, 28 classes were opened up in these five cities and there were 572 registrations (Oğuzkan 1981: 27). FLHEP had the aims of ending the dry method of teaching how to read and write in classes, taking the public education as a whole, reaching daily lives of adults, connecting literacy with health and the productive activities of villagers (Günlü 2005: 114). Functional literacy studies have been applied in Turkey for three years. Nonetheless, it was seen that the results were not at the desired level. What’s more, a dropout rate of 40% was witnessed in these courses (Gulbay 2000: 3).

10. With the 2841 numbered law passed in 1983 titled ‘The law concerning the turning of the citizens beyond the ages of compulsory education literate and providing them with primary school level education’, MONE and public institutions are appointed responsible on this subject. MONE and Apprenticeship and Non‐Formal Education General Directory (ANFEGD) have been fully authorized to open literacy education courses. This law required the cooperation of other state institutions with MONE and the reporting of illiterate people in the private sector to MONE and letting them follow courses. Again with the aforementioned law, it has become obligatory for the illiterate citizens to attend the literacy courses. In addition to this, together with the 2821 numbered trade unions law, it has become obligatory for the trade unions to open up literacy courses for their illiterate members.

11. The ‘Project of Development of Education of Young Girls and Women’ has been carried out between the years 1997 and 2000. Together with income generating and occupational courses, this project has provided literacy courses for all the adults, especially targeting young girls and women. The ‘Project for Supporting Social Development and Employment in Eastern and South‐Eastern Region’ has provided literacy courses for adults, especially targeting young girls and women who are suffering from poverty because of social and economic reasons. These courses are organized together with education courses on fundamental life capabilities, income generating skills and employment promoting occupational skills. Between September 2001 and October 2002, 151,213 people have attained 7730 courses within the reach of this project, out of which 64,812 were women and 86,401 were men. Despite the fact that both projects were aimed at women, they have served the needs of men in actuality and this situation shows how hard it is to find a proper way to reach the target group which needs the literacy education most, the illiterate women (Nohl and Sayılan 2004).

12. Cf. Sayılan, Balta and Şahin. (2002), Research for finding out the illiterate and unemployed women living in Ankara’s Gecekondu Districts, unpublished research report (Ankara: UNDP‐KSSGM‐KASAUM).

13. The ‘Campaign for Supporting the Schooling of Girls’ has been realized in the 53 cities with the lowest girl schooling rates. The aim of the campaign which started with the slogan ‘Come on Girls, to the School’ is to raise the schooling rates of girls, and gain back the students who have dropped out or who have been practicing non‐attendance. The application area of the project has been raised to 81 provinces by the year 2006 (UNICEF Report). Moreover, the extension of primary education to a compulsory and continuous eight years in 1997 have contributed to the rise in the rate of schooling of girls in every level and the rise in the period that girls stay in education. While the net schooling rate for girls in the elementary school has been 7.6% in the school year of 1997–1998, this rate has risen to 92.2 in the 2004–2005 school year. However there are still 1.5 million kids (who are overwhelmingly girls) at the elementary school level who do not attend school. Despite the comparative rise of this rate at the elementary school level through schooling campaigns, the schooling rate at middle school turned out as 57.2% for girls while it is 74.3% for boys.

14. The Adult Literacy Education Programme and Materials have been reorganized in the year 2005 in accordance with the Primary Education Curriculum Reform. An ideological transformation accommodating the neo‐liberal tendencies of the period can be clearly seen on the level of curriculum. The angle between the life worlds of illiterates who are at the most disadvantageous position and the fundamental life capabilities that this program, which is targeting to produce a profile of entrepreneur citizens, is aiming to offer them will keep its existence.

15. MEB. Support to Basic Education Project. Basic Line Study. Ankara. 2003: 4

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