Economic Research Forum (ERF)

Education gains through compulsory schooling: evidence from Turkey

A policy reform in Turkey in 1997 extended the length of compulsory schooling from five to eight years, a measure that involved substantial public investment in school infrastructure. This column reports research on the effects of the extension on educational outcomes and, in particular, on the equality of these outcomes between men and women, and between residents of urban and rural areas.

In a nutshell

Turkey’s extension of compulsory schooling led to a substantial improvement in the completion rate of grade 8 (age 15) – the final year of compulsory schooling.

The policy also equalised the educational attainment of urban and rural children substantially.

There is no evidence of a narrowing gender gap with the policy; on the contrary, the gender gap in post-compulsory schooling in urban areas widened.

Educational attainment remains at very low levels in many developing countries. Furthermore, despite the progress made towards equality in schooling, women continue to lag behind men in many developing countries, and rural areas typically lag behind urban areas.

Can compulsory schooling help to raise educational attainment and reduce gender and rural-urban gaps? The answer is not obvious. First, there is the problem of enforcement: a change in the law may not be enough to change behaviour, especially when enforcement is weak. Second, there is the question of how post-compulsory school investment decisions of children would change with the compulsory schooling law.

The introduction of compulsory schooling can be justified on the grounds that sub-optimal schooling decisions may be made due to financial constraints, social and cultural norms, myopic decision-making and lack of information. Furthermore, when individuals make educational choices, they only consider their private gains, ignoring possible benefits for wider society. Compulsory schooling may help to close gender and rural-urban gaps by reducing the private cost of schooling and forcing everyone, albeit imperfectly, to get a minimum level of education.

Evidence of the effects of compulsory schooling policies on educational outcomes in developing countries is rather scarce. Studying Taiwan’s 1968 education reform, which increased tuition-free compulsory schooling from six to nine years, Spohr (2003) finds the initial effect of the reform to be smaller for girls than for boys. In a later study, Tsai et al (2009) find a reduction in the gender schooling gap due to Taiwan’s policy. Studying the 1986 compulsory school reform in China, Fang et al (2012) find that it had much stronger effects on girls than boys but similar effects by urban/rural status.

Our recent study looks at the experience of Turkey, using data from the 2003 and 2008 Demographic and Health Surveys to assess the impact of the 1997 reform that increased compulsory schooling from five to eight years (Kirdar et al, 2016). Before 1997, compulsory schooling in Turkey was limited to five years of primary education, which could be followed by three years of lower secondary and three years of upper secondary education. The reform merged the first eight years under the umbrella of basic education.

Prior to the reform, the net enrolment rate in lower secondary schooling was only 52%, with large disparities between girls and boys and between rural and urban residents. For example, while 79.4% of urban boys aged 11 to 15 were enrolled in school, the corresponding figure for rural boys was 67.1%. Among girls, there were even larger gaps, with only 38.3% of rural girls enrolled in school compared with 64.5% of urban girls.

Enactment of the law in Turkey was accompanied by substantial government investment in school infrastructure, hiring of additional teachers, and expansion of the bussing system and the boarding school facilities. The share of the Ministry of Education in the public investment budget jumped from 15% in 1996 and 1997 to 37.3% in 1998.

As a result, the increase in the population of children in compulsory schooling, which was around 15% in the first three years following the reform (compared with a drop of 1% in the three years preceding the reform) was met without much of a change in basic schooling quality.

The extension of compulsory schooling led to a substantial improvement in the completion rate of grade 8 (age 15) – the final year of compulsory schooling. The most disadvantaged groups – rural residents and girls – benefited the most. Grade 8 completion rate increased with the policy by about 30-40 percentage points for rural girls.

There were also favourable effects for non-compulsory schooling years. For example, the upper secondary school completion rate of urban boys increased by 10-18 percentage points. The overall increase in completed years of schooling with the policy was quite substantial. The completed years of schooling at age 17 increased by about 1.3 years for rural boys, by about 1.5 years for rural girls and by about 0.8 years for both urban boys and urban girls.

Returning to the question of whether the extension of compulsory schooling narrowed the gap in educational attainment between urban and rural areas and between girls and boys: the policy equalised the educational attainment of urban and rural children substantially. The urban-rural gap in the completed years of schooling at age 17 fell by about 0.5 years for boys and by about 0.7 to 0.8 years for girls.

The increased availability and lower costs of schooling that came about due to longer compulsory education were instrumental in closing the urban-rural education gap. At this point, it can be argued that had the main impediment to lower schooling of girls been cultural norms, we would not have observed such an improvement due to increased school accessibility.

Although schooling attainment increased for both girls and boys with the policy, the gender gap did not narrow. In fact, the gender gap in urban areas grew in post-compulsory schooling.

We conjecture that this is to do with the low labour force participation of women, particularly in the paid labour market. While the extension of compulsory schooling encouraged men to acquire even more schooling to distinguish themselves in the labour market, such motivation was not present for women. Hence, reducing the gender schooling gap would require interventions beyond school accessibility.

Further reading

Fang, Hai, Karen Eggleston, John Rizzo, Scott Rozelle and Richard Zeckhauser (2012). ‘The Returns to Education in China: Evidence from the 1986 Compulsory Education Law’, NBER Working Paper No. 18189.

Kirdar, Murat, Meltem Dayioğlu and Ismet Koç (2016) ‘Does Longer Compulsory Education Equalize Schooling by Gender and Rural/Urban Residence?’, World Bank Economic Review 30(3): 549-79.

Spohr, Chris (2003) ‘Formal Schooling and Workforce Participation in a Rapidly Developing Economy: Evidence from ‘Compulsory’ Junior High School in Taiwan’, Journal of Development Economics 70(2): 291-327.

Tsai When-Jyuan, Jin-Tan Liu, Shin-Yi Chou and Robert Thornton (2009) ‘Does Educational Expansion Encourage Female Workforce Participation? A Study of the 1968 Reform in Taiwan’, Economics of Education Review 28: 750-58.

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