The Pisa Research Project, part of a European Union initiative, put Turkish schools second to bottom out of over 25 OECD countries in terms of their success on math and science. The project tests focussed on, amongst other things, higher order thinking skills and generally gave credence to the criticisms of the Turkish education system as being rote-learning orientated. The Pisa research slightly overstates the lack of quality in the Turkish system as it used a random selection of pupils and schools across the country.

If the private school system were taken independently, then their results would compare favourably with the averages obtained across other European countries. In other words, the distribution of quality is broader in Turkey than other nations, with a larger number of relatively poor performing schools, but also with a number of extremely high performing establishments.

The national testing system instituted at the end of each of Grade 8 increased the pressure on families to send their children to cram schools. The results of this exam decides which type of high school students can go to. They thus determine their long-term chances of getting into a good university at the end of their high school education. The university decision is again based on a national exam, taken in two parts (YGS – LYS) at the end of Grade 12 by upwards of 1.5 million school leavers each year.

With the demise of the cram schools, as a result of a change in government policy, many high schools are now incorporating ‘cram’ programs into the services they offer. This adds a new dimension to high school curricula and a dilemma for those wishing to focus on a more holistic and broader set of skills for students.

The curriculum challenge for schools such as the Özel Bilkent Schools is to focus on developing students critical thinking skills, writing skills, ability to reflect and plan their own learning, as well as allow them to be successful in the national assessment system. The school needs to develop students as mature, independent and positive contributors to the society in which they live, whilst at the same time providing the type of reflexes which will allow them access to good universities in Turkey. Unfortunately, the assessment system for entry into University does not generally favour skill-based, whole person development. Thus, a good school needs to develop a strategy which caters for both these aspirations, namely personal and intellectual development, and, at the same time, knowledge-based examination success.