Just outside Istanbul, there is a school that is redefining the role of private education. The independent Koç (pronounced “coach”) School is one of the best in Turkey, with an international reputation. It is also a unique philanthropic enterprise, founded to be a force for good. “It’s something of a social responsibility project,” says General Director Koray Özsaraç. “I don’t know of any other school that does what we do.”

Run by the Vehbi Koç Foundation, one of the biggest charitable organisations in Turkey, the school is co-educational and completely non-profit. More than 400 of its 2,200 students are on scholarship. “Socially, it’s a melting pot,” says Özsaraç. “We have children from more than 40 cities and diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.” Around half go on to study at prominent universities abroad, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and MIT.

All students are required to take on charity or community work in order to graduate. “The school’s motto is ‘Reason, Conscience and Courage’,” says Özsaraç. “We encourage children to look at their actions, reactions and processes and to instil the notion of ‘conscience’ at every level.”


Leaving a legacy

The school was founded in 1988 by Vehbi Koç, a wealthy businessman whose foundation also established hospitals, museums and a university. “He was born in the days of the Ottoman Empire,” says Özsaraç. “After he made his fortune, he wanted to give something back. He was keenly aware of the importance of education in cultivating an open, critical mind.”

The school takes children from kindergarten until graduation, with entrance exams for new starters in Years 3, 5 and 7. Those fortunate enough to get in receive a world-class education in a state-of-the-art setting. The 750-acre campus boasts tennis courts, swimming pools and an auditorium. School publications include newspapers, fanzines and literary journals; many students have gone on to become poets, playwrights and journalists.

The curriculum is infinitely adaptable. “We don’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach,” says Özsaraç. “We try to recognise each child’s weaknesses and strengths and to design their educational experience while keeping those qualities in mind.”

The faculty is international, with teachers coming from 19 countries. Lessons are bilingual in Turkish and English and embrace all academic and creative subjects. “Schools in Turkey often specialise in maths or science,” says Özsaraç. “But that doesn’t reflect the realities of life. I’ve had students who started out saying they were going to be engineers or doctors but ended up being great jazz drummers.”


Theory and practice

Özsaraç’s inspiration is Paulo Freire, the revolutionary Portuguese educator whose 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argued that children should be seen as “co-creators of knowledge” rather than empty vessels. It’s a theory that he admits is hard to put into practice. “There is huge pressure on pupils to succeed academically,” he says. “Not just from the system, but from parents too.”

The Koç School also puts a premium on fostering a sense of social responsibility. “We give these kids a great education so that they can give something back,” says Özsaraç. “Vehbi Koç wanted this school to benefit society as a whole. We hope our students will go out into the world and change it for the better.”