The education system is organized as follows:
- 2-3 years of optional pre-school and/or kindergarten
- 4 years of primary school (ilköğretim)
- 4 years of middle school
- 4 years of high school (lise)
Kindergartens do not form part of compulsory education. They tend to be cheap and of a good standard. Thanks to the 2005 education reform, all three stages of compulsory education can be completed in state-funded schools. As an alternative, students can attend private schools.
Before attending university (or any other institution of high education), Turkish students must take entrance exams. The results of these exams determine which schools (and sometimes which academic programs within those schools) they are eligible to attend. In some cases, 2 or 3 points on an entrance exam can mean the difference between eligibility for a four-year undergraduate degree or restriction to a two-year education program.
The Turkish school day
Students usually begin school around 8:15 and end at 15:00. They take an hour for lunch in the middle of the day. Cafeterias are rare in Turkish schools, so most students either go home for lunch or bring lunches to school. Due to overcrowding, some city schools divide their student body into two parts, each of which attends school for half-a-day. This can be found mostly in major cities like Istanbul and Ankara.
Until sixth grade, Turkish students have a single teacher. From sixth grade on they have different teachers for different subjects.
Despite Turkey's predominantly Muslim population, public schools do not allow prayer. Furthermore, headscarves (hijab) are strictly forbidden. Instead of praying at the beginning of the school day, Turkish students recite the national anthem (İstiklal Marşi).
A notably ironic exception to these these rules is religion class, which begins halfway through primary school. Turkish religion classes focus on Islam. Foreign students are not required to attend religion class, but their participation is welcome.
If you would like your child to attend religion classes, check with the school and learn about the curriculum. Depending on your own religious beliefs, you might change your mind after learning the details. Conversely, you might decide that your child will gain a valuable cultural experience by attending, even if you and your family are not Muslim.
Regardless, you should make your decision based on whether or not you think your child will be comfortable.
Speaking of your child's comfort, be aware that physical punishment is not taboo in Turkish schools. If you are from a Western country where putting hands on a student will cost a teacher their job, remember that at the very least, most Turkish teachers are allowed to give the ears of a misbehaving student a rough yank. This certainly does not mean that your child will be severely beaten, but it is worth remembering.
Western girls should not expect the equality they are used to in their home countries when attending Turkish schools. There was a time in Turkey where boy-crazy girls could be forced to submit to 'virginity tests', and though this is no longer the case, rebellious girls will certainly be disciplined or expelled more easily than boys.
Note that this disciplinary culture is significantly different at private and international schools, where there are large concentrations of foreign students.