The "4+4+4" scheme gives religious schools a bigger role with youngsters forced to stay in school for 12 years, triggering charges that the religiously conservative government is dissolving Turkey's secular structure.
Turkey accused of using school system for 'campaign of Islamisation'
ISTANBUL // Summer holidays are over but having to be back in class is not the reason why Sidar Kardogan, a 16-year-old high school student in Istanbul, is angry.
Along with some other students, Sidar recently spent a day handing out leaflets criticising the government's education policy. A poster with a picture of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and slogans against Mr Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was taped to their booth on Istiklal Caddesi, a popular shopping street in central Istanbul.
"This system is bad for Turkey," Sidar said, referring to new policies for primary and secondary education that came into force on September 17.
The "4+4+4" scheme introduces 12 years of compulsory education, up from 8 years under the old system, and gives religious schools a bigger role, triggering charges that the religiously conservative government is engaged in a campaign of Islamisation and dissolving Turkey's secular structure.
It is called the "4+4+4" system because it is based on four years of primary school, followed by four years of middle school and four years of high school.
"The new school year has been started with the aim to create a new mentality and regime directed at ending the founding philosophy, values and symbols of the Turkish republic," said Muharrem Ince, a leading opposition politician.
Mr Ince, a senior member of the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), the biggest opposition party in Turkey's parliament, said AKP members, instead of education officials, had determined which schools in one Istanbul neighbourhood would be turned into religious schools.
Sidar pointed to a statement by the prime minister who said this year that his party's aim was to raise a "pious youth" in Turkey. "They want all young people to be like the AKP," Sidar said. "They want to raise all children according to their own ideology."
Even though the "4+4+4" scheme has come under fire, experts agree that the old system was highly politicised and inadequate for Turkey, a rising political and economic power with a growing need for well-educated workers and professionals.
One priority of the old educational system, shaped by the secularist military in power, was to dissuade Turks from sending their children to religious high schools, known as Imam Hatip schools.
Even though such schools last year accounted for only about 236,000 out of 4.7 million children in Turkey's secondary education, their role in the system has become the focus of critics.
Initially founded for the education of future Muslim clerics, the Imam Hatip schools have long been popular in Turkey's more conservative circles for a general education. Mr Erdogan attended such a school. Official figures show that more female than male students were enrolled in Imam Hatip schools last year, even though there are hardly any female Muslim clerics in Turkey.
The rules produced by the military in 1997 forced Imam Hatip schools to cancel their middle-year programmes, turning them into auxiliary high schools. Other rules weakened the schools' appeal by making it more difficult for Imam Hatip students to enter universities by slapping an unfavourable factor on results of Imam Hatip diplomas in calculations for the distribution of university places.
That is no longer the case. Mr Erdogan, during a visit to an Imam Hatip school in the western city of Denizli last week, said: "Imam Hatip schools are returning to their golden days as state schools."
Mr Erdogan's reforms will allow Imam Hatip middle schools in addition to high schools.
Ali Boga, an AKP politician from Mugla in south-western Turkey, caused an uproar in the secular press last month when he said that the new system had provided the government with a chance "to turn all schools into Imam Hatip schools".
The new system also introduces auxiliary Quran courses and courses dealing with the life of the Prophet Mohammed at the secondary level for the first time.
In another first, students in some secondary schools can choose Kurdish language lessons, the first time that Kurdish is being taught in state schools in Turkey.
Kurdish politicians have said the reform did not go far enough. They want Kurdish children to be taught Kurdish, instead of Turkish, as a first language. Ozgur Gundem, Turkey's main pro-Kurdish newspaper, reported this week that many people in the Kurdish south-east of the country kept their children at home on the first day of school to demand first language Kurdish classes.
Overcrowding of class rooms has been another issue, because children as young as five and a half years old have to attend school under the new rules. Some schools have had to split the school day in two different parts, with one group of children being taught in the morning and another in the afternoon to be able to use the same space twice.