State and School in Europe (Nineteenth­–Twenty-first Century)

Schooling became an affair of state during the first half of the nineteenth century, as administrations were created throughout Europe to oversee and promote its development. Driven by the spread of revolutionary ideals, the needs driven by industrialization, and the emergence of nations, states took charge of educating their people, sometimes in opposition to the Church and sometimes in conjunction with it. The secularization of schools came during the first half of the twentieth century. European educational systems at the time often functioned according to a segregational logic: future elites received secondary education based on the classical humanities, while the children of the people received primary education, which provided basic knowledge and practices. During the twentieth century, pupils were gradually brought together under a single curriculum up through lower-secondary school, as part of the democratization and mass expansion of secondary education during the postwar period, and of higher education during the current period. While the European Union encourages cooperation, states remain sovereign, with the distinctive features of various educational traditions remaining quite strong.

Start of class at the public primary school located at 77, boulevard de Belleville (Paris 11th arrondissement, France), October 2, 1925. Press photograph, Rol agency. Source: Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France. 
Start of class at the public primary school located at 77, boulevard de Belleville (Paris 11th arrondissement, France), October 2, 1925. Press photograph, Rol agency. Source: Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Strängnäs Gymnasium (secondary school) in West Stockholm, in 1907. Photograph taken from the album Schwedisches Panorama by Svenska Turistforeningen. Source: Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Strängnäs Gymnasium (secondary school) in West Stockholm, in 1907. Photograph taken from the album Schwedisches Panorama by Svenska Turistforeningen. Source: Gallica/Bibliothèque nationale de France.

School became a crucial issue during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to the spread of French revolutionary ideals, the desire to prevent new unrest, the need to train skilled labor, and the construction of nation states around a shared culture.

How School Became an Affair of State

While Napoleon organized the Université impériale, a centralized organization with a state monopoly over faculties and the granting of degrees (baccalauréat, licence, doctorat), the creation of lycées (state secondary schools) in 1802 had already placed the state in a position of power in secondary education. Countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, and Italy were influenced by this model, whose state-based nature raised eyebrows in the United Kingdom. The creation of dedicated administrations for schools bears witness to the growing role of states in this domain. Ministries of Public Instruction often grew out of the Ministry of the Interior, as was the case in Prussia (1819), France (1828), England (1857), Italy (1861), Spain (1900) and the Netherlands (1918).  Such a ministry was also created in Austria in 1848, but was later placed under the administrative supervision of the Ministry of Interior until 1945. Portugal created one in 1870, but it did not become independent until 1913. In Germany, schools were to a great extent the jurisdiction of regional states, which later became the Länder. A Federal Ministry was created under the Third Reich, and after its fall was not reestablished until 1969.

In Protestant countries, education was for a long time under the administrative supervision of a Ministry of Church. In Norway, the Ministry of Church and Education was created when the country won its independence (1814). A Ministry of Education appeared in Denmark in 1916. In Sweden, it did not become independent until 1968.  This was also the case in Orthodox Russia, where an ad hoc ministry was created in 1802, but remained connected to that of Spiritual Affairs. In Switzerland, instruction was the prerogative of cantons, although the 1874 constitution made the federal state the guarantor of the right to education. 

The forms taken by state intervention in education sometimes resulted from the transnational circulation of educational ideas and traditions. For example, mutual tuition created in England enjoyed great success across Europe. In Spain, the report by Manuel José Quintana, which served as the basis for the General Regulation for Public Education enacted in 1821, was based on the works of Condorcet. The Greek law on primary education (1834) retained the terms from the Guizot Law passed in France the preceding year. French republicans exiled during the Second Empire returned to France with educational ideas formulated in Switzerland. Under the Third Republic, France initiated observation missions, especially to the United Kingdom, Prussia, and the United States. At the same time, English inspectors visited France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to observe how secondary education was structured. Universal exhibitions were also a space for the internationalization of reflections on education.

Duly noting the decisive role of school in fashioning national citizens and moral unity, and reassured by the growing social demand that resulted from raising levels of instruction, governments broadened the purview of their action, as demonstrated by the nomenclature of the Ministry of Public Instruction, which became the Ministry of National Education in Italy (1929), France (1932), Portugal (1936), and Spain (1938). Fascist Italy and the Portuguese military dictatorship pursued opposing objectives to those of the French Radical-Socialist government or Spain’s Popular Front: in one hand, indoctrination and paramilitary control of youth by totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and, on the other, the defense of democratic values by republics.

From Segregational to Unified Schools: Instruction for All and the Selection of Elites

During the nineteenth century, European educational systems were structured in parallel tracks rather than successive levels. Primary education provided practical knowledge (reading, writing, counting), and was attended by 95-99% of European pupils. Secondary education, attended by 1-5% of European pupils, was founded on the classical humanities (Greek and Latin), and was the only way to gain access to the university. Schools distinguished between pupils based on their economic and cultural capital, which was often determined by social background and gender, as boys were raised to the public sphere, and girls to a domestic life.

Primary Education, a School for the Peoples of Europe

Primary education became compulsory by law almost everywhere in Europe. This measure improved school attendance, despite being unequally applied across different countries and regions. Primary education became compulsory in Prussia in 1716-1717, and Austria in 1774. It was established in Greece in 1834, followed by Denmark and Iceland (1837), Sweden and Norway (1842), Spain (1857), Italy (1859), as well as the canton of Geneva (Switzerland) and Scotland (1872). In the United Kingdom, school became compulsory until the age of 10 in 1880, the age of 12 in 1899, and ultimately the age of 14 in 1918. In France it extended until the age of 13 (1882), the age of 14 (1936), and later the age of 16 (1959). In Denmark, the length of compulsory schooling varied: in cities, its duration was 6 years, and 7 in the countries, where education was adapted to agriculture.

Compulsory schooling was often entirely free as in Sweden and Norway (1842), the canton of Geneva (1847), France (proclaimed in 1794, applied in 1882), and Greece (1895), or was partially free, as in Italy (1859), England (1891), and Denmark (1899). In Spain, free schooling was proclaimed in 1821, but was only partially implemented in 1907, when the state provided free schooling for poor pupils.

State as an educator was not self-evident, for in the United Kingdom, the state promoted primary schooling by supporting private charitable initiatives. The National Society promoted the Bell method and education in keeping with the Anglican Church, while the British and Foreign School Society promoted the Lancaster method. The influence left to these associations contrasted sharply with the gradual reining, under the July Monarchy, of the Société pour l’instruction élémentaire (Society for Elementary Education), a secular educational association promoting mutual tuition, whereas simultaneous teaching method was chosen by King Louis-Philippe.

In France, the Guizot Law (1833) founded public primary education and required towns with over 500 inhabitants to create a school for boys. Municipalities with over 800 inhabitants were invited (Pelet Order, 1836) and then required (Falloux Law, 1850) to open a school for girls; this threshold was lowered to 500 by the Duruy Law (1867). The Falloux Law (1850) ended the state monopoly over secondary education and reaffirmed the freedom of education. The Ferry Law of 1882 made primary schools secular by substituting moral and civic instruction for religious instruction. Religious influence declined even more after the law on associations (1901), the ban on teaching congregations (1904), and the separation of the Churches and the State (1905). Public primary schools numbered 33,695 in 1833, 49,754 in 1880, and 69,506 in 1913, a number that remained stable until the postwar period when it peaked at 74,997 (1960), and then fell to 63,600 (2017) in accordance with demographics.

States drove the secularization of education in many European countries. In the United Kingdom, the state decided to intervene only in 1839, when it created the Committee of the Privy Council on Education, which was tasked with allocating the subsidies approved by Parliament. The key issue was to mediate between the pretentions of the Anglican Church and the demands of minorities, dissenters, and Catholics. Religious unrest was so intense that in 1926, Élie Halévy wrote that the confrontation was between “state schools promoted by free churches, and free schools promoted by the state church.” The Forster Act (1870) established public primary schooling, a genuine national public service locally administered by boards of education directed by prominent citizens and municipalities.

In Spain, while religious instruction was part of the primary curriculum, the Pidal Plan (1845) launched the secularization of the secondary curriculum. A school construction plan was launched in 1907, although in 1931 27,000 schools were still needed to enroll all Spanish children between the ages of 6 and 12. Some were built at the beginning of the Second Republic, under which congregations were banned from teaching (1938). The law passed by the Francoist regime in 1945 restored the role of the Catholic Church. In Italy, primary education was secularized by the Boncompagni Law (1848), as Catholic influence was restricted in the name of Italian unity. The Coppino Law (1877) made religious instruction optional, and included the rights and duties of humans and citizens in the curriculum.

Military defeats sparked debates that were favorable to strengthening state intervention in education. School laws passed in France (1880-1882) after the defeat against Prussia (1870) initiated the reorganization and development of the educational system, in an effort to bolster national moral unity and prepare for revenge against Germany. In Spain, a ministry was created after defeat at the hands of the United States (1898), as the state educational system was accused of not being truly national. In both France and Germany, physical education appeared in schools at the instigation of the military and hygienists.

Schools played a key role in the construction of nations and their linguistic homogeneity. While the English educational system was famous for being less centralized than its French counterpart, dialects were as unwelcome as patois in French schools. In both countries, narratives that instilled national qualities and grandeur through a reinterpreted history were included in school programs. In France, republican values were established, even though in practice there were many accommodations made for local identity and traditions; in the United Kingdom, patriotism and attachment to the world’s first colonial empire were developed.

Secondary Education, Crucible for the European Elite

While secondary education became democratized in the United States in the early twentieth century, its European counterpart remained the prerogative of a minority of pupils until after the Second World War. The classical humanities, especially Latin and Greek, long held a prominent place, before gradually being supplanted by the sciences. Three groups of educational systems can be distinguished in Europe.

In chiefly Protestant Northern and German-speaking Europe (Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Sweden), secondary education was structured in parallel orders, while short technical tracks were well organized. In Germany, the school system was segmented: on the one hand were primary schools including volkschule (the people’s school, of Danish inspiration), mittelschule (middle school), and realschule (practical school), which were attended by most German youth; on the other hand were secondary schools including oberrealschule (upper practical schools), realgymnasium (modern secondary schools, without ancient languages), and the gymnasium (classical secondary schools, with Latin and Greek). From 1905, in Sweden and Norway, the orientation of pupils was gradually made: young Swedes in folkskole (the people’s school) could join a realskola in their 3rd year (practical school, for 6 years), or a mellanskola (middle school, for 6 years) in their 4th year, or a gymnasium (secondary school, for 4 years) in their 5th year. While practical education and manual tasks were included in the educational system to meet industry’s needs for skilled workers, classical education remained the most prestigious option, as well as a way of distinguishing an academic elite. In 1945, of the 75,000 young Swedes that began secondary education, only 10% completed the curriculum, and only 5% went on to pursue higher education. At the same time, primary education was attended by 500,000 pupils, in a country of 6.5 million inhabitants. This was also true of Norway, a country of 3 million inhabitants, with only 32,000 pupils attending secondary schools, as opposed to 300,000 in primary schools.

In the primarily Catholic countries of Western and Southern Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Portugal), secondary education was especially characterized by the dual legacy of Ancien Régime colleges and the Université impériale. The political context nevertheless explains different choices and strong national particularities. The centralization of the French educational system expanded throughout the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. In Spain, it was thwarted by political instability, the influence of the Catholic Church, and the autonomy granted to provinces, thereby reflecting the choice of another paradigm. The education of elites enjoyed considerable investment, such that in the early twentieth century, the number of secondary pupils for every 1,000 primary ones was 20 in Spain, 15 in France, and less than 5 in Italy. Primary education suffered from this situation, as did Spanish public education more broadly, as 78% of secondary schools were private, a proportion that was reversed in primary education, where 79% of schools were public. French schooling was structured around two parallel tracks. In primary education, pupils could attend an école maternelle (preschool, established in 1880), and then were required to attend an école primaire (lower-primary school) ; some of them could attend an école primaire supérieure (upper-primary school), which was similar to the practical schools of Northern Europe. In secondary education, offerings were split between lycées (state secondary schools) and collèges (municipal secondary schools). Women’s public secondary education was founded by Duruy in 1867, and was institutionalized in 1880 by the Camille Sée Law, which created lycées and collèges for girls. However, girls were not allowed to pass the baccalauréat until 1924. In 1945, secondary schools were attended solely by 346,000 pupils, as compared to 4.7 million in primary schools, in a country with 39.5 million inhabitants.

In the United Kingdom, secondary education was largely private. Public schools made up a small group of private and elitist secondary institutions that recruited nationwide, and were closely linked to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The education of the British elites was therefore highly homogenous, an expected result in a centralized system. The vast majority of secondary schools consisted of endowed secondary schools and those founded by local authorities, both of which were subsidized by the government and subject to inspection. There was no exam comparable to Prussia’s abitur (1788), France’s baccalauréat (1808), Denmark’s studentereksamen (1850), Spain’s bachillerato (1857), or Italy’s esame di maturità (1923).

Despite the differences between these three geographic and cultural areas, all of the educational systems were structured in parallel orders. Managing the relations between educational institutions and the working world raised questions that have never been fully resolved, despite the development of public technical and professional education. There were debates surrounding opportunities to end this system in favor of a unified school. Secondary education was gradually established free in the mid-twentieth century, coming in 1930 in France, and 1944 in the United Kingdom.

States Facing Democratized Mass Education

Education became an even more important issue during the postwar period with continued population growth from the baby boom, and the need for skilled workers driven by Europe’s reconstruction. These two factors explain the growing intervention of governments to democratize and build mass education systems.

In the United Kingdom, the Education Act (1944) increased the power of the Ministry and structured secondary education into three tracks, in which pupils were oriented following an exam: grammar schools, secondary modern schools, and secondary technical schools. Public schools still exist and follow programs similar to those of grammar schools. The General Certificate of Education Advanced Levels (A-levels), the English equivalent of the French baccalauréat, was established in 1951. In 1965, the Ministry encouraged local school authorities to merge grammar schools and secondary modern schools, giving rise to non-selective comprehensive schools, an English unified lower secondary school of sorts sought by Labour. In 1970, conservatives once again authorized grammar schools, although Labour enacted laws in 1976 and 1988 banning selection in secondary education.

In France, the Langevin-Wallon plan (1947) provided for a comprehensive reworking of the educational system, but never saw the light of day. The Berthoin reform (1959) unified the first years of lower-secondary school, and the Debré reform (1959) created the status of private schools under government contract. The May 1968 movement reflected the concerns of a generation regarding its integration within society, and accelerated educational transformations; protest forced the state to recognize the participation of pupils and their parents in local management of schools. In 1975, the Haby Law established unified lower-secondary school, and gradually brought an end to duality between primary and secondary education. In 1984, the Savary Bill provided for unifying public and private schools within a “large, unified, and secular public service of National Education”, although the free school movement succeeded in having it abandoned. In both countries there was a gradual implementation of unified primary and lower-secondary schooling, although selection persisted in English grammar schools.

The fall of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes brought the reorganization of entire educational systems. In Germany, two educational systems existed after 1945. The goal of East German schools, which were centralized and totalitarian, was to diffuse Marxist-Leninist ideology, and to provide education in conformity with the interests of the communist state. Polytechnische Oberschule (unified polytechnic schools) offered primary education that extended to approximately the age of 15, when schooling in erweiterte Oberschule (upper-secondary schools) began. West German schools were still based on the earlier model: they were managed by Länder, which in 1948 created the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education of the Länder to coordinate educational policies. This institution played an important role during reunification, when Länder assumed the prerogatives of the fallen East German state.

In Spain, the Francoist dictatorship passed a General Law on Education in 1970 that affirmed the need for a public education service and made primary school both compulsory and free. Tensions arose between the government and the Catholic Church, which had previously been favored, but proved incapable to contend with the mass expansion of pupils on its own. The percentage of the government budget spent of public education rose from 12% in 1965 to 17% in 1982. The constitution of 1978, which resulted from the transition to democracy, transferred government authority to new autonomous regions, with decentralization being complete in the late 1990s. In 2004, the Spanish government provided 4.5% of public spending on education, as opposed to 90.5% by autonomous communities, and 4.9% for local authorities.

The Treaty of Rome (1957) did not provide for a common authority in education. The Maastricht (1992) and Lisbon (2007) Treaties encouraged cooperation, but states remain in charge of schooling. However, while spending on education represented a considerable part of state budgets, it did not escape the regular cuts that have been made since the second oil crisis. The Bologna Process (1998) sought to structure a European space of higher education, in a context where student mobility was encouraged by the Erasmus program (1987). The reorganizations that resulted from this process raised questions regarding preparation for higher education, and influenced reforms in European schooling. The various conceptions of the welfare state that competed against one another in the context of European construction ultimately explored the respective roles of public authorities and private initiatives in structuring public education services.

Translated by Arby Gharibian

To quote from this article

Pierre Porcher , « State and School in Europe (Nineteenth­–Twenty-first Century) », Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe [online], ISSN 2677-6588, published on 18/09/20, consulted on 03/12/2022. Permalink :


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