We study family background effects on participation in primary and secondary education of children in Turkey using large representative data sets. Educational participation, especially of girls, is found to be still a major concern, with non-enrollment being especially high in the countryside and the eastern part of the country. Parental education, number of siblings, household income, occupation of the father, traditionality of the mother and the mother's ability to speak Turkish are major factors affecting participation. For primary participation of girls, having a mother who has completed primary education and who can speak Turkish is most significant. Traditional gender role attitudes of the mother reduce the girl's chances to get secondary education. For participation of boys, the economic situation of the household is important. Findings indicate that a key role is played by the mothers of the children who are out of school. Reaching this group of mostly illiterate and traditional women is a major challenge for policy makers wanting to improve the situation. (c) 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.