Compulsory education

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Compulsory education refers to a period of education that is required of persons, imposed by law. In some countries the education needs to take place at a registered school. Other countries allow the education to happen outside of school, for example via homeschooling.

History of Education - Antiquity to Medieval Era

Although Plato's The Republic is credited with having popularized the concept of compulsory education in Western intellectual thought, every parent in Judea since ancient times was required to teach their children at least informally. Over the centuries, as cities, towns and villages developed, a class of teachers called Rabbis evolved. According to the Talmud (tractate Bava Bathra 21a), which praises the sage Joshua ben Gamla with the institution of formal Jewish education in the 1st century AD, Ben Gamla instituted schools in every town and made formal education compulsory from the age of 6 or 7.[1]

The Aztec Triple Alliance, which ruled from 1428 to 1521 in what is now central Mexico, is considered to be the first state to implement a system of universal compulsory education.[2][3]

Early Modern Era

The Reformation prompted the establishment of compulsory education for boys and girls. Most important was Martin Luther's text 'An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes,' (1524) with the call for establishing schools.[4] Especially the Protestant South-West of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation with cities like Strassburg became pioneers in educational questions. Under the influence of Strasbourg in 1592 the German Duchy Pfalz-Zweibrücken became the first territory of the world with compulsory education for girls and boys.[5] The South German Duchy Wuerttemberg installed a compulsory education already in 1559, but for boys only.[6]

In Scotland the Education Act of 1496 had obliged the children of noblemen and freeholders to attend school, but the School Establishment Act of 1616 commanded every parish with the means to establish a school paid for by parishioners. The Parliament of Scotland confirmed this with the Education Act of 1633 and created a local land-based tax to provide the required funding. The required majority support of parishioners, however, provided a tax evasion loophole which heralded the Education Act of 1646. The turmoil of the age meant that in 1661 there was a temporary reversion to the less compulsory 1633 position. However, in 1696 a new Act re-established the compulsory provision of a school in every parish with a system of fines, sequestration, and direct government implementation as a means of enforcement where required.

During the Reformation in 1524, Martin Luther advocated compulsory schooling so that all parishioners would be able to read the Bible themselves, and Palatinate-Zweibrücken passed accordant legislation in 1592, followed by Strasbourg—then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire— in 1598.

Prussia implemented a modern compulsory system in 1763 which was widely recognised and copied. It was introduced by the Generallandschulreglement, a decree of Frederick the Great in 1763-5.[7] The Generallandschulreglement, authored by Johann Julius Hecker, asked to educate all young citizens, girls and boys, to be educated from the fifth till at age 13 or 14 and to provide them with a basic outlook on (Christian) religion, singing, reading and writing based on a regulated, state provided curriculum of text books. The teachers, often former soldiers, were asked to cultivate silk worms to make a living besides contributions from the local citizens and municipalities.[8] Funding and training of the teachers was slowly expanded and received funding till teachers gained full academic status in the 20th century. This provided a working model for other states to copy; the clearest example of direct copying is probably Japan in the period of the Meiji Restoration.[9]

In Austria, Hungary and in the Lands of the Bohemian Crown (Czech lands), mandatory primary education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresa in 1774.[7]

Modern Era


Compulsory school attendance based on the Prussian model gradually spread to other countries. It was quickly adopted by the governments in Denmark-Norway and Sweden, and also in Finland, Estonia and Latvia within the Russian Empire, but was rejected in Russia itself.[10][11] France and the United Kingdom did not, until the 1880s, introduce compulsory education: France due to conflicts between a radical secular state and the Catholic Church, and the UK due to the upper class defending its educational privileges and turfs.[11]

One of the last areas in Europe to adopt a compulsory system was England and Wales, where the Elementary Education Act of 1870 paved the way by establishing school boards to set up schools in any places that did not have adequate provision. Attendance was made compulsory until age 10 in 1880. The Education Act of 1996 made it an obligation on parents to require children to have a full-time education from the age of five to the age of sixteen. However, attendance at school itself is not compulsory; Section 7 of the Act allows for "education otherwise" than at a school i.e. home education.

United States

Following Luther and other Reformers, the Separatist Congregationalists who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, obliged parents to teach their children how to read and to write so that they were able to read the Bible for themselves.[12] In Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded by Puritans in 1628, a law obliged parents to teach their children reading and writing in 1642. Five years later, the first steps were taken to require free elementary instruction in the towns. The Puritan zeal for learning was reflected in the early and rapid rise of educational institutions. Harvard College was founded in 1636.[13] The American Commonwealth of Massachusetts was the first state to pass a compulsory education law which occurred in 1852. These laws continued to spread to other states until finally, in 1918, Mississippi was the last state to enact a compulsory attendance law.[14] Massachusetts had originally enacted the first compulsory education law in the American colonies in 1647. In 1852, the Massachusetts General Court passed a law requiring every town to create and operate a grammar school. Fines were imposed on parents who did not send their children to school and the government took the power to take children away from their parents and apprentice them to others if government officials decided that the parents were "unfit to have the children educated properly".[15]

Compulsory education was not part of early American society;[citation needed] which relied instead on church-run private schools that mostly charged fees for tuition.[citation needed] The spread of compulsory attendance in the Massachusetts tradition throughout America, especially for Native Americans, has been credited to General Richard Henry Pratt.[16] Pratt used techniques developed on Native Americans in a prisoner of war camp in Fort Marion, Augustine, Florida, to force demographic minorities across America into government schools.[16] His prototype was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

In 1922 an attempt was made by the voters of Oregon to enact the Oregon Compulsory Education Act. Which would require all children between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend State School. Only leaving exceptions for mentally or physically unfit children, exceeding a certain living distance from a state school, or having written consent from a county superintendent to receive private instruction.[17] The law would be passed by popular vote but would later be ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters. Determining that "a child is not a mere creature of the state". This case would settle the dispute about whether or not Private Schools had the right to do business and educate within the United States.

Compulsory education laws and its conflict with the Amish tradition led to the United States Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder. The Supreme Court determined that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education laws past the 8th grade.

Most states within the United States have additional education laws that require a minimum number of instructional days for all schools, including homeschooled children and private schools. 30 states require 180 days, 2 require 181, and 11 require between 179 and 170 days. Depending on the state required days for homeschools and private schools are lower, and in a few states, homeschools are completely exempt from such regulations.[18]

Variation in countries' ages of compulsory schooling

Some kind of education is compulsory to all people in most countries, but different localities vary in how many years or grades of education they require and in whether it needs to be in a school or can be provided at home. Due to population growth and the proliferation of compulsory education, UNESCO calculated in 2006 that over the subsequent 30 years more people would receive formal education than in all prior human history.[19] It is possible in many countries for parents to provide education for children by homeschooling, although this is often monitored for adherence to national standards.

Country Age Range Notes
Argentina 6-14
Australia 5-15/17 Upper age limit varies among states. Waived if pursuing full-time employment or full-time education
Belgium 6-18
Brazil 7-14
Canada 6-16 Except Ontario and New Brunswick: 6-18. Some provinces have exemptions at 14.
China 6-15
Egypt 6-14
Finland approx 7-15 Beginning age is negotiable ± 1 year. Ends after graduation from comprehensive school, or at least 9 years.
France 6-16
Germany 6-16 Varies slightly between states.[20][21]
Haiti 6-11 The Haitian Constitution mandates that education be free of charge. However, even public schools charge substantial fees. 80% of children go to private schools.
Hong Kong 6-17 Hong Kong laws state that education is free for 12 years except for private schools or subsidized schools.
Hungary 3-16 Since 2015, kindergarten is compulsory from age 3, although exceptions are made for developmental reasons[22][23]
India 6-14 The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in August 2009 made education free and compulsory for children between 6 and 14.
Indonesia 6-15
Israel 3-18 Compulsory education law is not enforced until the age of 5, as an official governmental policy since 1984 (renewed year to year)
Iran 6-12[24]
Italy 6-16
Jamaica 5-16 Parents could face charges of Child Neglect if they prevent their children from going to school without valid reasons. Not enforced.
Japan 6-15
Malaysia 6-12[25]
Mexico Schooling is required through upper secondary school (Preparatoria).[26]
Morocco 6-15
Netherlands 5-18 Students are allowed to leave early after obtaining their 'start qualification' (MBO level 2, HAVO or VWO degree)
Norway 6-15 A total of ten years (of study, and not schooling, as suggested here), where Primary school is year 1-7 (without grades), and Lower Secondary school (with grades) is year 8-10.[27]
Poland 6-18 Polish law distinguishes between compulsory school (obowiązek szkolny) and compulsory education (obowiązek nauki).
Portugal 6-18 It is the law that children living in Portugal (if there for 4 months or more) must go to school. Home schooling is available with registration at a school and quarterly examinations in the Portuguese curriculum only
Russia 6-17 Student may leave after age 15 with the approval of parents and the local authority.[28]
Slovenia 6-15
Singapore 7-12[29] Children with special needs are excluded from compulsory education
Spain 6-16
Syria 6-15 Typical ages for 9 years of compulsory education from grade 1 to grade 9.
Sweden 7-16[30]
Taiwan 7-18 Typical ages for 12 years of compulsory education (starting from 2014)
Turkey 6-18 From the 1st to the 12th grade, education is compulsory. Starting in the educational year of 2012-2013, an education reform took effect to bring the compulsory education up to the end of high school. The system is commonly referred to as 4+4+4.
United Kingdom 5-18[31] Requirement is for a full-time education, but attendance at a school is not compulsory (section 7 of The Education Act 1996).
United States about 6-17 Varies by state. Beginning age varies 5-8, ending age varies 15-18.[32] Some states allow early leave with parental approval. Education does not need to be at a school and can be provided in the home.
Uruguay 6-14
Zimbabwe 6-16 Typical ages for 11 years of compulsory education.


Compulsory education has been criticized on various grounds::

  • It violates freedom and liberty. It should be an individual choice if he wants to go/send his child to a school.
  • The belief that it encroaches on the rights of children[33]
  • The belief that it encroaches on the rights of parents[34]
  • The belief that, historically, compulsory education is not guided by altruism[35]
  • The belief that it implicitly teaches authoritarianism[36]
  • The belief that the variety of children's individual growth cannot be supported within an imposed structure[37]
  • The historical purpose being to produce a population of passive and obedient workers and consumers [38]

See also


  1. Wikipedia: Jewish education#Primary schooling
  2. Jacques Soustelle (11 November 2002). Daily life of the Aztecs: on the eve of the Spanish Conquest. Courier Dover Publications. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-486-42485-9. Retrieved 27 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Wikipedia: Aztec#Education
  4. Luther deutsch, p. 70, at Google Books
  5. Emil Sehling (ed.), Die evangelischen Kirchenordnungen des 16. Jahrhunderts. Vol 18: Rheinland-Pfalz I. Tübingen 2006, p. 406.
  6. "Große Kirchenordnung", 1559, Oliver Geister, Die Ordnung der Schule. Zur Grundlegung einer Kritik am verwalteten Unterricht. Münster 2006, p. 145.
  7. 7.0 7.1 James van Horn Melton. "Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria". p. xiv.
  8. 250 Jahre Volksschule in Preußen, Lesen, Schreiben und Beten (250 years of primary education in Prussia) 12.08.2013 Tagesspiegel Berlin, Barbara Kerbel, in German
  9. Wikipedia: Education in Japan
  10. Cubberley, 1920
  11. 11.0 11.1 Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  12. John Demos (1970), A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., pp. 104, 142-144
  13. Clifton E. Olmstead (1960), History of Religion in the United States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J, pp. 79-80
  14. Katz, Michael S. "A History of Compulsory Education Laws" (PDF). ERIC - Institute of Education Sciences. ERIC. Retrieved 19 December 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Rothbard, Murray Rothbard. "The Puritans 'Purify': Theocracy in Massachusetts". Conceived in Liberty. Arlington House Publishers.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 Witte, Daniel E. and Paul T. Mero. "Removing Classrooms from the Battlefield: Liberty, Paternalism, and the Redemptive Promise of Educational Choice, 2008 BYU Law Review 377" (PDF). Retrieved 6 October 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Jorgenson, Lloyd P. The Oregon School Law of 1922: Passage and Sequel. Catholic University of America Press. p. 455. Retrieved 18 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Tomlinson, Jeffrey. "Number of Instructional Days/Hours in the School Year" (PDF). State Notes. Retrieved 19 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Schools Kill Creativity. TED Talks, 2006, Monterey, CA, USA.
  20. de:Schulpflicht#Heutige Rechtslage
  21. "Where home schooling is illegal". BBC News. March 22, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Hungary lowers mandatory school age to three
  24. . BBC Farsi Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "Pelaksanaan pendidikan wajib di peringkat rendah 2003" (PDF).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "''Calderón firma decreto de preparatoria obligatoria'' Laura Casillas". Azteca Noticias. Retrieved 8 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. "About Education in Norway". Foreign Ministry of Norway. Retrieved 29 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Federal law of Russia "On education", article 19.6
  29. "COMPULSORY EDUCATION ACT (CHAPTER 51)". Singapore Statutes Online.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  30. Hans Högman. "Den svenska skolans historia" (in Swedish). Hasses hemsida. Retrieved 6 September 2014. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  31. "Education leaving age". Retrieved 15 May 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Age range for compulsory school attendance and special education services, and policies on year-round schools and kindergarten programs.. Retrieved 28 November 2009.
  33. John Holt
  34. Branden, N. (1963). Public Education, Should Education be Compulsory and Tax Supported, as it is Today? Chapter 5, Common Fallacies About Capitalism, Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 89.
  35. Murray Rothbard
  36. Hidden curriculum
  37. Herbert Read, The Education of Free Men (London: Freedom Press, 1944), pp. 27–28.

Further reading

  • Coleman, J. S., et al. (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Dunlap, Knight (1929). "Is Compulsory Education Justified?," The American Mercury, pp. 211–214.
  • Epstein, R. (2007). Let's abolish high school. Education Week. Retrieved April 18, 2007, from
  • Gardner, Richard (1871). An address on compulsory education: given before the Church of England School Teachers' Association for West Kent, February 11, 1871. Tonbridge: Richard Gardner.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Gatto, J. T. (2003). The Underground History of American Education. New York: The Oxford Village Press.
  • Holt, J. (1974). Escape from childhood. In Noll, J.W. (Ed.), Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Educational Issues (pp. 25–29). Dubuque, IA: McGraw-Hill.
  • Illich, I. (1970). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.
  • O'Keeffe, D. (2004). Libertarian Alliance. Compulsory education: An oxymoron of modernity. Retrieved April 16, 2007, from
  • Rothbard, M. (1978). Public and compulsory schooling. In For a New Liberty (chap. 7). Retrieved April 12, 2007, from
  • Van Horn Melton, J. (1988). Absolutism and the Eighteenth-Century Origins of Compulsory Schooling in Prussia and Austria Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • West, E. G. (1974). The economics of compulsion. In The Twelve-Year Sentence. Retrieved April 11, 2007, from
  • White, John (1876). "The Laws on Compulsory Education," The Fortnightly Review, Vol. XXV, pp. 897–918
  • "HB542 (2011) | New Hampshire Liberty Alliance". Retrieved 22 June 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links