Primary Education

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Max Roser and Mohamed Nagdy (2016) – ‘Primary Education’. Published online at Retrieved from: [Online Resource]

Primary school education today is focussed on establishing the fundamental literacy and numeracy skills of children, as well as developing their understanding of the world. These skills are increasingly necessary for life in the modern world, and are essential to the functioning of developed economies. For this reason, primary education is compulsory and provided by the state in almost all countries around the world. The second United Nations Millennium Development Goal was to “ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.” This goal was missed but significant progress has been made. In 1999, only 81% of children in the developing world attending primary school, and today the figure is around 92% — equivalent to 58 million children not in primary education.1

# Empirical View

Historically, formal education was propagated by religious institutions as a way of spreading and preserving their traditions as well as training clergy. Although schools and religious institutions existed long before the 19th century, education was not compulsory and, in the majority of cases, costly. What is more, the value of a child’s labour meant that only the richest families could afford to educate their children, a phenomenon that still exists in many developing countries today.

# The rise of basic schooling over the last 2 centuries

The chart shows the global development of attainment of at least some basic education. The estimates from the OECD and the IIASA institute show for the global population older than 15 years the share that has not received any formal education. In 1820 this was the huge majority of the world: More than 4 out 5 people alive then had not received any formal education. Over the last 2 centuries this turned around completely and today fewer than 1 out of 5 have received no education at all.

# The Rise of Basic Schooling since the 19th Century

The earliest universal primary education system was established in Prussia by Frederick William in 1717.2 It was greatly expanded during the first half of the 19th Century and later copied by other European nations and the US. While many countries followed suit during the 20th century, others have been much slower at adopting the model of universal education. India only passed laws introducing universal, free and compulsory education in 2009. There also still remain a handful countries that do not have laws making attendance mandatory.

# Primary school enrolment rates for a select group of countries, 1830-20113

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# Population having attained at least basic education by region, 1870-2010 – OECD (2014)4

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Current projections predict that the proportion of people receiving no education at all will converge to zero. By 2050, only five countries are predicted to have a rate of no education above 20%: these are Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali and Niger.

# World maps of gross primary school enrollment (%) – Max Roser5

# Correlates, Determinants & Consequences

# Primary Education and Growth

The correlation between schooling and growth has long been recognised. Countries with higher rates of education also tend to be more developed economies. For more information on the link between education and development, click here.

Richard Easterlin writing in 1981 highlighted the importance of universal schooling and economic development.6 His argument rests on the observation that “in the United States and Germany [the] development of widespread formal schooling preceded the onset of modern economic growth.” Furthermore, Easterlin argues that mass (primary) schooling of a “secular and rationalistic type” is the most conducive to economic growth and not simply just education of the elite:

Raising productivity levels involves active participation in new production methods by large numbers of the population—by workers in agriculture, industry, transportation, and so on. This is not to say that secondary and higher education can be ignored; clearly one needs technologists as well as mass education. But increases at higher levels of education typically go together with the expansion of primary education. On the other hand, education of the elite without mass education is unlikely to foster economic growth.

Easterlin suggests that the focus on educating the elite at the expense of the masses in the Ottoman Empire may have contributed to its decline. He also points out that while Spain had relatively high levels of primary education, it was tightly controlled by the Catholic Church and did not teach science, mathematics or other subjects that constitute a modern elementary education. For this reason, by 1900 almost two-thirds of Spain’s population remained illiterate.

# Primary School Enrollment Rate (per 10,000 population) by Country, 1830-1975 – Easterlin (1981)7

Primary school enrollment rates - Easterlin (1981)

# Religion, Schooling and Growth

The debate surrounding the link between religion and growth has an interesting history. Max Weber writing in the early 20th Century argued that it was the protestant work ethic that fostered the spirit of capitalism. However, recent empirical tests of this theory have rejected it.

Sascha O. Becker and Ludger Woessmann conducted an empirical test of Weber’s hypothesis in Prussia.8 They conclude that while economic performance was indeed higher in protestant regions, so too was literacy, which explains the gap in economic performance. In particular, “protestant economies prospered because instruction in reading the Bible generated the human capital crucial to economic prosperity.” For more information on literacy, click here.

# Returns to Education

Cross-country estimates of the return to education have found that the highest returns come from primary schooling. The most comprehensive work by George Psacharopoulos finds that the rate of return on primary education to an individual is 26.6%, highlighting the enormous benefits of basic education.9 However, disaggregating the results reveals that for less developed countries this is broadly true, but that in the developed world, the returns to higher education tend to be greater than for primary education.10 This pattern could be explained by the heterogeneous labour market conditions around the world, in particular, the supply of skilled and unskilled labour. For more information on the returns to education, click here.

Returns to investment in education by level

# Data Quality & Definition

# Enrollment definitions

There exist several ways of measuring enrollment in school:

  • Net Enrollment Ratio (NER): is the ratio of enrolled children in the official school age group to the total number of children in the official school age group
  • Gross Enrollment Ratio (GER): is the ratio of enrolled children of all ages to the total number of children in the official school age group

In countries where many children enter school later (or repeat grades) the GER can exceed 100%, whereas the NER cannot exceed 100%.

# Data Sources

# UNESCO Institute of Statistics
  • Data: Comprehensive data on enrollments, out-of-school children, repetition, completion, gender, teachers, education expenditures, learning outcomes, educational attainment, education equality, literacy, population, labor, and EMIS.
  • Geographical coverage: Global by country
  • Time span: 1999-2015
  • Available at:

# World Bank EdStats
  • Data: indicators on educational attainment, enrolment, attendance, teachers, financing and more
  • Geographical coverage: Global, over 200 countries
  • Time span: 1970 to most recent data year; Projections to 2050
  • Available at: It is online here

# Barro-Lee educational attainment dataset
  • Data: Educational attainment disaggregated by age group and gender
  • Geographical coverage: 146 countries worldwide
  • Time span: 1950-2010
  • Available at: It is online here

# International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
  • Data: Educational attainment disaggregated by gender and age group as well as future projections
  • Geographical coverage: 123 countries worldwide
  • Time span: Actual 1970-1995, Projected 2000-2050
  • Available at: It is online here

# OECD: How Was Life? Global Well-being since 1820
  • Data: Historical data on per capita GDP, real wages, educational attainment, life expectancy, height, personal security, political institutions, environmental quality, income inequality and gender inequality
  • Geographical coverage: Global
  • Time span: 1820-2010
  • Available at: It is online here
    van Zanden, J., et al. (eds.) (2014), How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:

# Education Policy and Data Center (EPDC)
  • Data: Key education indicators, measuring school access, participation, completion and progression, learning outcomes, level of resources such as schools and teachers, and other key measures of the education system
  • Geographical coverage: Global
  • Time span: 1999-2015
  • Available at: It is online here