Education reforms divide secular Turkey
Ankara - Education reforms which would allow parents to put their children in religious schools at 10-years-old have sparked fierce debate on whether they would dent Turkey's secular credentials and even provoked a punch-up in parliament.
Under new proposals which could be on the statute book within weeks, children will now be able to taken out of the secondary school system and undergo vocational training four years earlier than at present.
The government insists it is not pursuing an "ideological agenda" and that the goal is to prepare students for professional life in a country where youth unemployment exceeds 20% of the workforce.
The religious schools are an opportunity for youngsters to study to be imams, ministers argue.
However teachers and big business have joined the opposition in decrying the moves as another attack on secularism by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a movement which has strong Islamist roots.
"The government does not want to extend compulsory education but is trying to hide its objective of raising the religious youth [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan desires," said Yildiz Unsal, the chairperson of the teachers' union Egitim-Sen.
The AKP is already at loggerheads with the military - long seen as the bulwark of Turkey's official secularism - as allegations that officers had plotted to topple the government a decade ago are pursued through the courts.
As members of parliament's education committee debated the bill earlier this week, feeling ran so tight that some lawmakers traded kicks and punches.
"The majority wants to impose its ideology on the whole in Turkey," said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), accusing the government of "dictatorship".
The AKP's commanding majority means the bill should easily pass when it comes before the full parliament in around three weeks. If all goes to plan, the bill will come into force before the start of the school year in September.
As the law stands, all Turkish children - boys and girls - must go to mainstream school from the age of six to 14.
Up until 1997, parents had been allowed to place their children in religious schools, known as Imam Hatips, from the age of 10.
Itching for a change
But as the army effectively forced the Islamist premier Necmettin Erbakan from power, the law was changed to ensure that youngsters would have to remain in normal secondary schools at least until the age of 14.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's current prime minister who is a protégé of Erbakan, has long itched to change the system back. He himself was educated in an Imam Hatip.
The influential Turkish Industrialists' and Businessmen's Association (TUSIAD) has been one of the most vocal critics of the changes - to the annoyance of Erdogan who has said he wants to raise a "religious youth".
"I'm sorry, TUSIAD, you will not have it your way. The will of the nation will prevail," the prime minister has told them.
Since 1997, the generals have also lost their political influence considerably and Erdogan is unapologetic about his desire for more religious education.
"Do you expect the conservative and democrat AKP to raise a generation of atheists?"
Girls will stay at home
Teachers worry that parents will abuse the reforms to pull their children out of school, sending sons to Imam Hatips but not their daughters.
After the old system was scrapped in 1997, the enrollment rate for girls in the first eight years of education rose to 65%, almost doubling from the previous 34%.
Under the new changes "boys will go to Imam Hatip and girls will stay home", said Unsal.
There are currently around 4.2 million high school students in Turkey, 100 000 of them going to one of the country's 540 Imam Hatips.