Compulsory education refers to a period of education that is required of all people and is imposed by law. Depending on the country, this education may take place at a registered school (schooling) or at home (homeschooling).
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights requires, within a reasonable number of years, the principle of compulsory education free of charge for all.
Compulsory education was not unheard of in ancient times. However instances are generally tied to royal, religious or military organization—substantially different from modern notions of compulsory education.
Plato's The Republic (c. 424–c. 348 BCE) is credited with having popularized the concept of compulsory education in Western intellectual thought. Plato's rationale was straight-forward. The ideal city would require ideal individuals, and ideal individuals would require an ideal education. Popularization of Plato's ideas began with the wider Renaissance and the translation of Plato's works by Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), culminating in the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, known for his own work on education, Emile, or On Education had said To get a good idea of public education, read Plato’s Republic. It is not a political treatise, as those who merely judge books by their title think, but it is the finest, most beautiful work on education ever written.
In Sparta boys between the age 6 and 7 left their homes and were sent to military school. School courses were harsh and have been described as a "brutal training period". Between the age of 18 and 20, Spartan males had to pass a test that consisted of fitness, military ability, and leadership skills. A student's failure meant a forfeiture of citizenship (perioidos) and political rights. Passing was a rite of passage to manhood and citizenry, in which he would continue to serve in the military and train as a soldier until the age of 60, when the soldier could retire to live with his family.
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 age 6-7.
Martin Luther's seminal text An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes (To the Councillors of all Towns in German Countries,1524) called for establishing compulsory schooling so that all parishioners would be able to read the Bible by themselves. The Protestant South-West of the Holy Roman Empire soon followed suit. In 1559, the German Duchy Württemberg established a compulsory education system for boys. In 1592, the German Duchy Palatinate-Zweibrücken became the first territory in the world with compulsory education for girls and boys, followed in 1598 by Strasbourg, then a free city of the Holy Roman Empire and now part of France.
In Scotland, the School Establishment Act of 1616 commanded every parish to establish a school for everyone 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.
In the 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 write. The Massachusetts School Laws, three legislative acts enacted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1642, 1647, and 1648, are commonly regarded as the first steps toward compulsory education in the United States. The 1647 law, in particular, required every town having more than 50 families to hire a teacher, and every town of more than 100 families to establish a school. The Puritan zeal for learning was reflected in the early and rapid rise of educational institutions; e.g., Harvard College was founded as early as 1636.
Prussia implemented a modern compulsory education system in 1763. It was introduced by the Generallandschulreglement (General School Regulation), a decree of Frederick the Great in 1763-5. The Generallandschulreglement, authored by Johann Julius Hecker, asked for all young citizens, girls and boys, to be educated from age 5 to age 13-14 and to be provided 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.
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 it was rejected in Russia itself.
The United Kingdom was slow to introduce compulsory education due to the upper class defending its educational privileges. In England and Wales, the Elementary Education Act of 1870 paved the way for compulsory education 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 age 5 to 16. However, attendance at school itself is not compulsory: Section 7 of the Act allows for home education.
France was equally slow to introduce compulsory education, this time due to conflicts between the secular state and the Catholic Church, and as a result between anti-clerical and Catholic political parties. The first set of Jules Ferry Laws, passed in 1881, made primary education free for girls and boys; communes and departments had the shared responsibility to fund it. In 1882, the second set of Jules Ferry Laws made education compulsory for girls and boys until the age of 13. In 1936, the upper age limit was raised to 14. In 1959, it was further extended to 16.
In 1852, Massachusetts was the first U.S. state to pass a contemporary universal public education law. In particular, the Massachusetts General Court required 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".
The spread of compulsory attendance in the Massachusetts tradition throughout the U.S., especially for Native Americans, has been credited to General Richard Henry Pratt. 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. 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 8 and 16 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. The law was passed by popular vote but was later 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 settled the dispute about whether or not private schools had the right to do business and educate within the United States.
In Japan, compulsory education was established shortly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Initially, it was strongly influenced by the Prussian education system. After World War II, it was rebuilt to a large extent, and the new education model is largely influenced by the American model.
The following table indicates at what ages compulsory education starts and ends, country by country. The most common age for starting compulsory education is 6, although this varies between 3 and 8.
|Australia||5||15/17||Upper age limit varies among states. Waived if pursuing full-time employment or full-time education.|
|Austria||6||15||Compulsory education only requires nine years spend in school.|
|Belgium||6||18||In Belgium, only compulsory education applies. School is not compulsory.|
|Canada||6||16||Except Ontario and New Brunswick: 6-18. Some provinces have exemptions at 14.|
|Cyprus||5||15||Compulsory education starts with one mandatory year of pre-primary (preschool) education.|
|Finland||7||15||Beginning age is negotiable ± 1 year. Ends after graduation from comprehensive school, or at least 9 years.|
|France||6||16||Compulsory education only|
|Germany||6||16||Varies slightly between states.|
|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.|
|India||6||14||The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in August 2009 made education free and compulsory for children aged between 6 and 14.|
|Jamaica||5||16||Parents could face charges of Child Neglect if they prevent their children from going to school without valid reasons. Not enforced.|
|Mexico||Schooling is required through upper secondary school (Preparatoria).|
|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.|
|Poland||7||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.|
|Singapore||7||15||Compulsory Education Act 2000. Children with special needs or those with permission to be homeschooled are exempted from the act but in November 2016 the government announced that the Act will extend to children with moderate and severe special needs beginning in 2019.|
|Syria||6||15||Typical ages for 9 years of compulsory education from grade 1 to grade 9.|
|Switzerland||4-6||15||Varies by canton.|
|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||Requirement is for a full-time education, but attendance at a school is not compulsory (section 7 of The Education Act 1996).|
|United States||5-8||15-18||Ages vary between states. Beginning age varies 5-8, ending age varies 15-18. In case Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court determined in 1972 that Amish children could not be placed under compulsory education laws past the 8th grade.|
|Zimbabwe||6||16||Typical ages for 11 years of compulsory education.|
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.
|Wikisource has the text of a 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article about Compulsory education.|
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