Protestors march with placards reading "enough! Don't turn our schools to Imam Hatips" in Kadikoy in Istanbul (AFP)
Nearly a quarter of top-performing students entering Turkish upper schools are expected to be placed in religious Imam Hatip schools, the education minister said on Thursday, a level which secular critics say unfairly prioritises Islamic education.
The top 10 percent of students currently in their final year of middle school are set to win places in selected schools under a new entrance exam system in June, part of education reforms drafted on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's orders.
Erdogan has said one of his goals is to forge a "pious generation" in largely Muslim Turkey and the number of pupils at Imam Hatip schools, founded to train future imams and preachers, rose five-fold to 1.3 million students in the last six years.
According to the exam system guide posted on the education ministry website, nearly 300 of the 1,367 schools selected to receive students who pass the exam are Imam Hatip schools.
Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz told broadcaster CNN Turk in an interview the religious school allocation was low compared to the 62 percent allotment for science and regular high schools.
"Is everyone going to Imam Hatips? That's an exaggeration," he said. "We envisage the level going to Imam Hatips will be 23 percent. Twenty-three percent is not bigger than 62."
"We are not forcing anyone to do anything," he said, adding parents did not have to send children to particular schools.
While Imam Hatip students make up 11 percent of the total upper school population, they were allocated some 23 percent of funding in this year's budget, a Reuters report showed in January.
"The government is trying to direct successful pupils towards Imam Hatips by raising their profile, having been unable to achieve the desired success and increase demand for them," main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) MP Utku Cakirozer told Reuters.
More than one million students will complete middle school this year and the 90 percent who are not placed through exams will make preferences for schools near their homes.
Under the previous system, all students took the upper school entrance exam and Yilmaz said the new system was designed to limit the number of students facing the stress of exams.
The Egitim-Sen teachers' union said in a statement it was launching a court challenge to the new system.
"The AKP continues to insist on a policy of making education religious," it said, referring to Erdogan's ruling AK Party.