When the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the new rulers established a national, secular education system, in contrast to the previous Ottoman system of Islamic schools. The country then saw a rapid expansion of education that helped reach the vastly illiterate population and later provided secondary and tertiary education for the future workforce. This took place parallel to the developing industry and service sectors, starting in the 1950s. By 1980, Turkey had become a largely urban society, and enrollment in grades 1 to 5 had grown to 97%. By the year 2000, enrollment in grades 1 to 8 was at 100%.
Since its foundation, centrally organized education in Turkey has been an important instrument for the ideological formation and social promotion of its citizens, so it has stood in the middle of political and social debates. The ideological direction of education in Turkey stands at the crossroads of nationalism versus minority rights, and secularism versus Islam. These have been ongoing issues, most apparently in the discussions on allowing mother-tongue education (especially Kurdish) and opening and closing imam and preacher schools. The variant poor quality of education has occasionally been a point of contention and catalyzed competition between schools, teachers, and pupils. The growing competitive character of Turkish education was accompanied by great social inequalities between gender and class positions as well as between geographical regions. Regarding the educational inequalities, the changed character of education after 1980, from being a public service to an enterprise, also involving the private sector, namely, the neoliberal education policies era, became one of the main discussion topics.
Since the Justice and Development Party, under R. T. Erdoğan, took power after the 2002 general elections, upper-secondary and tertiary education has grown, but the quality problem remains. Similarly, social inequalities were still a highly critical problem in education, reciprocally fueled by an ever-growing competition into which private schools and universities were forced. After the ruling party succeeded in getting the state apparatus under its control and announced a “New Turkey,” the government turned its back on the ideological foundations of the republic and promoted additional religious education in general schools, as well as in the imam and preacher schools, whose graduates were again permitted to follow nonclerical career paths.