Compulsory state education began in the West during the 16th century Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther wrote a letter to the German government in 1524 stating the following, “…If the government can compel such citizens as are fit for military service to bear spear and rifle…how much more has it a right to compel the people to send their children to school….” Subsequently, the first compulsory education system in the West was set up in 1559.
John Calvin, another key figure in the Protestant Reformation, created several government schools. The citizens in Geneva (the area in which Calvin was situated) were then compelled to send their children to these schools. Calvinists also influenced the Puritans, who later immigrated to the colonies of North America bringing with them compulsory state education.
Frederick William I, emperor of Prussia,
was a major figure in establishing compulsory education throughout his kingdom. In 1717 he created the first national compulsory state education system. His son, Frederick the Great, continued along these lines. He said: “The prince (ruler) is to the nation he governs what the head is to the man; it is his duty to see, think, and act for the whole community.”
In France, compulsory education was introduced during the French Revolution. Although this wasn’t successful, Napoleon was later able for a time to have compulsory state education. In his schools it was taught to fully obey, worship and be loyal to Napoleon. However, it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that compulsory state education took firm root in France.
By the year 1900, all of the European countries had compulsory state education systems, with the exception of Belgium, who followed in 1920.