Compulsory Educational Provision

Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


The nature and length of compulsory education has been one of the most strongly contested aspects of modern schooling systems. Compulsory education was at the heart of these national systems, established around the world, and constituted a key feature of modern societies. Nevertheless, the principle that there is both a right and a duty for all children to attend school for a certain period of time was fiercely debated, and there were diverse practices on the ground. In general, there has been a pattern of growing public support and then an extension of compulsion that might take decades to achieve fully. In some countries, there has been a tendency for legislation to be largely symbolic and only enforced later. Elsewhere, the law has lagged behind, and responded to, voluntary participation in schooling. The designated age for starting school varied, although most countries settled on the age of 6. The school-leaving age steadily increased in most systems despite opposition from employers, parents, policy makers, and many teachers, up to the age of 18 in some cases by the early twenty-first century. The extension of compulsory education had considerable effects on the structure of schooling, enabling the development of different stages of education, and also on the curriculum. It shaped the nature of modern childhood, adolescence, and the transition into adulthood in modern societies.


Attendance Compulsory education Elementary education School-leaving age Secondary education 


  1. Alexander K, Alexander MD. American public school law. 8th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth; 2011.Google Scholar
  2. Australian States and Territories. Federalist paper 2: the future of schooling. Canberra: AST; 2007.Google Scholar
  3. Balls E. Fabian Society lecture: raising the participation age (Fabian Society lecture); 2007.Google Scholar
  4. Barton A. Wilkinson’s law. The Guardian, 6 January, 1964.Google Scholar
  5. Black S, Devereaux P, Salvanez K. Staying in the classroom and out of the maternity ward? The effect of compulsory schooling laws on teenage births. Econ J. 2008;118:1025–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bridgeland J, Dilulio J, Streeter R. Raising the compulsory school attendance age: the case for reform. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises; 2007.Google Scholar
  7. Bush M. Compulsory school age requirements, education commission of the states, Denver – 2010.
  8. Cooke D, Pruet E. Constitutional and statutory development of compulsory school attendance in Alabama. Peabody J Educ. 1939;16(5):330–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cowan S, McCulloch G, Woodin T. From HORSA huts to ROSLA blocks: the school leaving age and the school building programme in England, 1943–1972. Hist Educ. 2012;40/3:361–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Davey I. Capitalism, patriarchy and the origins of mass schooling. Hist Educ Rev. 1987;16(2):1–12.Google Scholar
  11. Everhart RB. From universalism to usurpation: an essay on the antecedents to compulsory school attendance legislation. Rev Educ Res. 1977;47(3):499–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ewing JL, National Commission on Education. Compulsory education in New Zealand. Paris: UNESCO; 1972.Google Scholar
  13. Franklin B, McCulloch G, editors. The death of the comprehensive high school? New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2007.Google Scholar
  14. Green C, Navarro Paniagua M. Does raising the school leaving age reduce teacher effort? Evidence from a policy experiment. Econ Inq. 2011;
  15. Hearnden A. Education, culture and politics in West Germany. 2nd ed. London: Pergamon; 1976.Google Scholar
  16. Hodgson D. Policy rationalisations and policy technologies: a programme for analysing the raised school-leaving age in Western Australia. J Educ Policy. 2011;26(1):115–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. IBE. Compulsory education and the raising of the school leaving age (1934). In: International conference on education: recommendations 1934–1977. Paris: UNESCO; 1934/1979.Google Scholar
  18. Illich I. Deschooling society. Harmondsworth: Penguin; 1973.Google Scholar
  19. Johnson R. Educational policy and social control in early Victorian England. Past Present. 1970;49(1):96–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kandel I. Raising the school leaving age. Paris: UNESCO; 1951.Google Scholar
  21. Katz MS. A History of compulsory education laws, fastback series no 78, Bloomington Indiana; 1976.Google Scholar
  22. Katznelson I, Gille M, Weir M. Public schooling and working class formation: the case of the United States. Am J Educ. 1982;90(2):111–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. McCann P, editor. Popular education and socialisation in the nineteenth century. Manchester: Manchester University Press; 1976.Google Scholar
  24. McCulloch G. Educating the public: Tawney, the Manchester Guardian and educational reform. In: Aldrich R, editor. In history and in education. London: Woburn; 1996. p. 116–35.Google Scholar
  25. McCulloch G, Cowan S, Woodin T. The British conservative government and the raising of the school leaving-age, 1959–1964. J Educ Policy. 2012;27/4:509–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. McNair J. Education in Spain, 1970–1980: the years of compulsory schooling. Comp Educ. 1981;17/1:47–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ministry of Education (UK). 15 to 18 (Crowther report). London: HMSO; 1959.Google Scholar
  28. Murtin F, Viarengo M. The expansion and convergence of compulsory schooling in Western Europe, 1950–2000. Economica. 2011;78:501–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. New South Wales (NSW) Government. Raising the school leaving age: consultation paper. Sydney: NSW Government; 2008.Google Scholar
  30. OECD. Compulsory education in a changing world. Paris: OECD; 1983.Google Scholar
  31. Pilcher J. Age and generation in modern Britain. New York: Oxford University Press; 1995.Google Scholar
  32. Preston P. Article, two more futile years. The Guardian, 15 January, 2007.Google Scholar
  33. Provasnik S. Judicial activism and the origins of parental choice: the Court’s role in the institutionalisation of compulsory education in the United States, 1891–1925. Hist Educ Q. 2006;46/1:311–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Ramirez F, Boli J. The political construction of mass schooling: European origins and worldwide institutionalisation. Sociol Educ. 1987;60(1):2–17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Rao PV. Compulsory education and the political leadership in colonial India, 1840–1947. In: Rao PV, editor. New perspectives in the history of Indian education. Delhi: Orient Blackswan; 2014. p. 151–75.Google Scholar
  36. Reid C, Watson K. Compulsory education in Australia: perspectives from students, parents and educators: London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2016.Google Scholar
  37. Reid C, Young H. The new compulsory schooling age policy in NSW, Australia: ethnicity, ability and gender considerations. J Educ Policy. 2012;27(6):795–814.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Richardson JG. Common, delinquent and special: on the formalisation of common schooling in the American states. Am Educ Res J. 1994;31(4):695–723.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Savage J. Teenager: the creation of youth 1875–1945. London: Chatto and Windus; 2007.Google Scholar
  40. Sharp C. School starting age: European policy and recent research. Paper presented at local government association seminar, when should our children start school? London, 1 November, 2002.Google Scholar
  41. Sheldon N. The school attendance officer 1900–1939: policeman to welfare worker? Hist Educ. 2007;36(6):735–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Simon B. Educaton and teh social order, 1940–1990, Lawrence and Wishart, London; 1991.Google Scholar
  43. Soysal Y, Strang D. Construction of the first mass education systems in nineteenth-century Europe. Sociol Educ. 1989;62(4):277–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Springhall J. Coming of age: adolescence in Britain, 1860–1960. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan; 1986.Google Scholar
  45. Szreter R. The origins of full-time compulsory education at five. Br J Educ Stud. 1964;13(1):16–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Task Force. (To study raising the compulsory public attendance age to 18), attending to learn. Baltimore: Maryland State Department of Education; 2007.Google Scholar
  47. Tawney RH. Letter to Fred Clarke, 30 September (Tawney papers, UCL Institute of Education archive); 1940.Google Scholar
  48. Tickle L. Article, Raising the school-leaving age will make teachers ill. The Guardian, 13 September, 2011.Google Scholar
  49. UNESCO. Extension of free and compulsory education. Downloaded 27 February 2018; 1951.
  50. Van Horn Melton J. Absolutism and the eighteenth-century origins of compulsory schooling in Prussia and Austria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1988.Google Scholar
  51. Whitehurst G, Whitfield S. Compulsory school attendance: what research says and what it means for state policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; 2012.Google Scholar
  52. Williams S, Ivin P, Morse C. The children of London: attendance and welfare at school, 1870–1990. London: IOE; 2001.Google Scholar
  53. Woodin T, McCulloch G, Cowan S. Secondary education and the raising of the school leaving age: coming of age? New York: Palgrave Macmillan; 2013.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Education, Practice and SocietyUCL Institute of EducationLondonUK

Personalised recommendations