VoxEU Column Development Labour Markets

The expansion and convergence of compulsory schooling: Lessons for developing countries

A workforce’s cognitive skills and ability to learn are regarded as crucial factors for countries hoping to develop and become competitive in the global knowledge economy. This column argues that many developing countries‘ basic educational attainment and learning outcomes remain wanting. Taking a look at Europe’s historical record can shed light on the developing-country context, and evidence suggests that simply expanding an ill-functioning educational system will be wasteful. It’s advisable for policymakers to pursue institutional reform aimed at cost-efficiency before they begin implementing school reforms.

One goal of the UN’s Millennium Declaration is “achieving universal primary education” by 2015 (UN 2012). Yet, according to recent statistics, 61 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school (UNESCO 2012), and 12% do not complete primary education (World Bank 2012). Drop-off rates significantly increase in developing countries during the transition from primary to secondary school. Regional variation and gender differences are also important: 53% of out-of-school children are girls (UNESCO 2012) and less than 50% of girls in the relevant age group complete primary schooling in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank 2012).

A larger access to basic education yields earnings premiums, but is also a gain for society as a whole in terms of increased political participation and democratisation (Murtin and Wacziarg, 2011), reduced criminal activity (Machin et al. 2011) and fertility control (Murtin 2012). Existing studies suggest that the cognitive skills of the workforce are related to economic growth and development (Hanushek and Woessmann 2008). Actually, public investment in basic education displays large social returns thanks to increased labour-force participation and government tax revenues (OECD 2012), which partly explains why many governments around the world have increased mandatory schooling in the past.

The determinants of compulsory schooling

In this regard, looking at the historical experience of Western European countries could provide some insights. In recent research (Murtin and Viarengo 2011) we investigate the evolution and determinants of the expansion of compulsory schooling in Western Europe that has taken place since the end of the second world war. We consider countries as diverse in terms of education traditions as Nordic, Anglo-Saxon, southern and continental countries.

As a starting point, increases in mandatory years of schooling have triggered a corresponding rise in educational attainment in those countries. This result is in line with US studies such as Lleras-Muney (2001) and Goldin and Katz (2003), who showed that changes in school leaving laws and child labour laws were effective at raising education levels in the US. Most importantly, the historical experience of western European countries suggests that the implementation of the law did not simply correspond to the formalisation of a social change but led to a gradual increase in enrolment rates.

When we examine the timing and the magnitude of changes in school-leaving age, we find very strong convergence in mandatory years of schooling. During the post-second world war period those European countries that started with lower levels of compulsory schooling were also those where governments introduced the extension of the school-leaving age at an earlier stage and of a greater magnitude. For instance, mandatory years of schooling have increased by respectively one and six years in the UK and Portugal, the countries with, respectively, the highest and lowest initial levels of mandatory years. As we show in the paper, the convergence process may reflect diminishing returns in the extension of school-leaving age.

Beyond the convergence effect, we examine the economic and political determinants of mandatory years of schooling. We test the validity of three different hypotheses that have been provided in the literature to explain the rise of compulsory schooling and, more generally, the diffusion of education: the complementarity between education and technology, political factors and the budget constraint of the state.

Technology theory

The technological theory argues that the rising demand for education was triggered by the greater complexity of productive activity (Galor 2011). When engaged in a ‘race between education and technological change’, states seek to increase educational attainment via compulsory schooling in order to facilitate the adoption of new technologies. Moreover, the complementarity between education and technology becomes relatively more important with sharp economic rivalry between nations (or with strong military rivalry, see Aghion et al. 2012). This phenomenon is observed today and was also at play during the first era of globalisation (1870-1913). For instance, Galor (2011) argues that fierce economic competition between England and its continental challengers Prussia and France led the British government to provide universal education for the first time in the Education Act of 1870.

Other political factors may have affected the expansion of compulsory schooling, as western European countries that experienced the largest expansion in compulsory schooling did not have a democratic regime before that.

  • The process of European integration may have played a central role;
  • Democratisation may have had an impact;
  • Inequality may matter.

Sokoloff and Engerman (2000) and Galor et al. (2008) argue that the degree of implementation of education reforms is an outcome of the balance of power in society. In particular, Galor and co-authors provide historical evidence in support of the inverse relationship between land inequality and investments in human capital. In that context, higher inequality should entail lower compulsory schooling.

The budget constraint of the state is the third type of explanation that we examine. Intuitively, financing public education is easier during periods of strong economic growth, with lower dependency rates and higher urbanisation rates.

As a result, we find a robust and positive association between trade openness and years of compulsory schooling. This finding is consistent with the view that export-oriented emerging economies are more likely to undertake educational reforms, as was the case for eastern Asian countries in the 1950s. Two other variables such as the democracy index and the urbanisation rate are sometimes found significant in our regressions, but these results also lack robustness.

Expanding compulsory schooling while maintaining the quality of basic education

There are specific policy issues related to the extension of mandatory years of schooling:

  • The effectiveness of such reform would depend on the degree of enforcement of the law.

It is not automatic that extension of compulsory schooling will fully translate into higher educational attainment of disadvantaged pupils. In this regard, evidence from developing countries suggest that demand-side policies aiming at changing private behaviour can complement mandatory schooling policy and lead to the expected policy outcome (Freeman, Machin and Viarengo 2011). As an example, conditional cash transfers, such as ‘Progresa’ in Mexico and ‘Bolsa Familia’ in Brazil, have successfully driven children out of jobs and into school (Schultz 2004, De Brauw et al. 2010).

  • Expansion of the basic education system may crowd out resources per pupil and lead to a deterioration in education quality.

For instance, pupils to teacher ratios may increase or textbooks become scarcer if no additional resource is injected into the system. So any increase in mandatory years of schooling should be well funded to avoid education quantity-quality trade-off. South Africa provides a good illustration in this regard. This country has reached full enrolment at primary and secondary levels and eight years of mandatory schooling, which is only slightly lower than western European levels, but also displays very poor outcomes in international and regional surveys (such as TIMSS, PIRLS and SACMEQ). 

  • Maintaining the quality of basic education during phases of expansion may require institutional reforms.

For instance, there is lots of evidence that school dysfunctions partly take place due to the low capacity of local or federal administrations to deliver effective learning capabilities (Pritchett and Viarengo 2009). As expanding an ill-functioning educational system can yield much waste, it would sometimes be advisable to proceed first to institutional reforms aiming at raising cost-efficiency before implementing reforms of the minimal school-leaving age.


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