Public school

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This article deals with the government-funded school provided for public education; for the British public school see Independent school (UK).

Public schools, funded from tax revenue and most commonly administered by government or local government agencies as part of public education, are the most common type of educational institutions in many nations. Public schools exist primarily because of compulsory education laws. These laws were intended to give all children equal opportunity for an education, but since most families could not afford tuition at private schools, governments were forced to set up public schools. As a result, these schools are generally inclusive (non-selective) in admitting all students within the geographical area that they serve. Public schools are often organized and operated to be a deliberate model of the civil community whose youth they were established to educate. Public colleges and universities were also established to provide students access to higher education. Such education is not compulsory, and attendance is usually not free, although it is usually significantly cheaper than at private universities.

While public schools are to be found in virtually every country, there are significant variations in their structure and educational programs. The educational system, or lack thereof, prior to the establishment of public schools impacts their nature their role in each society. In many instances there was an established educational system which served a significant, albeit often elite, sector of the population. The introduction of public schools in some cases was able to build upon this established system, while in others both systems have continued to exist, sometimes in a parallel and complementary relationship and other times less harmoniously.

Finding a way to assess the best education for each individual, unique in their talents, abilities, and interests, without discrimination and elitism, is essential to the health of future societies. At the same time, all young people need education to become good citizens, following the norms and serving the society to which they belong. The public school, responsible to provide compulsory education all children within a given geographical area, has the challenge of how to do this.


The term public school has two distinct (and virtually opposite) meanings depending on the location of usage:

  • In countries of the United Kingdom (although it can be ambiguous in Scotland): A traditional privately operated secondary school which commonly requires the payment of fees for its pupils, and is usually a boarding school. Originally, many were single-sex boarding schools, but most independent schools are now co-educational with both boarders and day-pupils. Such schools are comparable to American preparatory schools.
  • In the United States and many other countries: A school funded from tax revenue and most commonly administered by government or local government agencies as part of public education. The British equivalent is the "state school."

Public schools exist primarily because of compulsory education laws. Most nations require students to attend school for a certain time period; while the exact requirements differ from one country to the next, often attendance is required from primary school age (between five and six years of age) until completion of secondary school (anywhere between 16 and 18). Public schools exist so as to give the majority of children a place to meet this required attendance, providing an equal educational opportunity to the population of children in each school's jurisdiction.

Public colleges and universities were established to provide students access to higher education, although often these schools are not free, just significantly cheaper than others.


While public schools did not start to appear on a global scale until the nineteenth century, the idea of public education has been implemented on occasion throughout history. Around 63-64 C.E. the Kohen Gadol (high priest) of Jerusalem, Yehoshua ben Gamla, not only insisted that a unified system of teaching be established, but dictated that every Jewish community, regardless of size, must establish a school to educate every child, male or female, over the age of five.[1] These schools were were primarily religious in nature.

When the Church of Scotland was established as the official state religion in Scotland, in 1560, it set out to provide a school in every parish controlled by the local kirk-session, with education to be provided free to the poor, and the expectation that church pressure would ensure that all children took part. In 1633 the Parliament of Scotland introduced local taxation to fund this provision. Schooling was not free, but the tax support kept fees low, and the church and charity funded poorer students. This had considerable success, but by the late eighteenth century the physical extent of some parishes and population growth in others led to an increasing role for "adventure schools" funded from fees and for schools funded by religious charities, initially Protestant and later Roman Catholic.[2]

Apart from instances of this nature, generally initiated by religious bodies, it was not until compulsory education laws were passed, first in Europe and the United States, and then later in Asia, South America, and Africa, that public schools were established around the world. Before compulsory education laws, most countries had private educational institutions that charged a fee for admission and were only attainable based upon academic achievement, demonstrated potential, or sometimes race, religion, or other discriminatory factors.

Compulsory education laws were intended to give all children equal opportunity for an education, but since most families could not afford tuition at private schools, governments were forced to set up schools on a wide scale. Public education is thus inclusive, both in its treatment of students and in that enfranchisement for the government of public education is as broad as for government generally. Thus, public schools are often organized and operated to be a deliberate model of the civil community whose youth they were established to educate.

Cultural variants

While public schools are to be found in virtually every country, there are significant variations in their structure and educational programs. The educational system, or lack thereof, prior to the establishment of public schools also impacts the nature of public schools and their role in each society. In many instances there was an established educational system which, although not serving all, served a large proportion of the population. The introduction of public schools in some cases was able to build upon this established system, while in others both systems have continued to exist, sometimes in a parallel and complementary relationship and other times less harmoniously. Following are some examples from around the world.



There are two types of government funded and controlled schools in Egypt: Arabic Schools and Experimental Language Schools. Arabic Schools provide the government's national curriculum in the Arabic language, while Experimental Language Schools teach most of the government curriculum in English, and add French as a second foreign language. Both types can be found at all levels of compulsory education, which is considered Basic Education, made up of the Primary Stage and Preparatory Stage. Public higher education is free in Egypt, and Egyptian students only pay registration fees.


Public schools in Kenya are under-developed as free, compulsory education was not established in the country until the beginning of the twenty-first century. Under the harambee system (literally means "working together for a common purpose" in Swahili, only primary education is free and run by the government. With free education, attendance increased and a shortage of teachers and classrooms arose. This resulted in children receiving insufficient attention from teachers due to the overcrowding of classrooms. The increase in numbers came both from children who could not afford to attend previously, and children being taken out of lower-tier private schools in order to take advantage of free education. This created a demand for low cost private schools where parents that could afford to pay the fees can send children to learn in a better environment.[3]

The government subsequently introduced plans to offer free secondary education to all, with three types of secondary school: Private schools, government-aided schools, and harambee schools. The government-aided schools are more selective and accept only one out of four children, based on their score on the Kenya Certification of Primary Education (KCPE). Most government-aided schools are boarding schools.

South Africa

In South Africa, the South African Schools Act of 1996 recognized two categories of schools: Public and independent. Independent schools include all private schools and schools that are privately governed. Independent schools with low tuition fees are state-aided and receive a subsidy on a sliding-scale. Traditional private schools that charge high fees receive no state subsidy. Public schools are all state-owned schools, including section 21 schools (formerly referred to as Model C or semi-private schools) that have a governing body and a degree of budget autonomy, as these are still fully-owned and accountable to the state. A majority of these schools are either elementary or High schools, since compulsory education begins at grade 1 and ends at grade 11.



The People's Republic of China has a nationwide system of public education which includes primary schools, middle schools (lower and upper), and universities. Nine years of education is technically compulsory for all Chinese students. Education in China is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education. The education system provides free primary education for six years (some provinces may have five years for primary school and four years for middle school), starting at age seven or six, followed by six years of secondary education for ages 12 to 18. At this level, there are three years of middle school and three years of high school. The Ministry of Education reported a 99 percent attendance rate for primary school and an 80 percent rate for both primary and middle schools. Since free higher education was abolished in 1985, applicants to colleges and universities have competed for scholarships based on academic ability.[4]

India and Sri Lanka

In India and Sri Lanka due to the British influence the term "public school" implied a non-governmental, historically elite educational institution, often modeled on British public schools. The terms "private" and "government" school are commonly used to denote the type of funding. Certain schools technically would be categorized as private schools, but many of them have the name Public School appended to them, such as the Delhi Public Schools and Birla Vidya Mandir. They are privately owned but "aided" by the government. They have a high standard and quality of education. Most middle class families send their children to such schools, which might be in their own city or far off to boarding schools. The medium of education is English, but as a compulsory subject, Hindi and/or the state's official language is also taught.[5]


The Ministry of Education is responsible for overseeing all public schools in Japan, the majority of which are elementary and junior high schools, which are the years established for compulsory education. Even though upper secondary school is not compulsory in Japan, in 2005 it was reported that over 97 percent of all lower secondary school graduates entered upper secondary schools.[6] Private upper-secondary schools account for about 55 percent of all upper-secondary schools, whereas public schools make up 95 percent of all schools for primary and junior high school level education. Neither public nor private schools are free for upper secondary education. The Ministry of education estimated that annual family expenses for the education of a child in a public upper-secondary school were about 300,000 yen (US$2,142) and that private upper-secondary schools were about twice as expensive.[7] A majority of the colleges and universities are public in Japan.



A primary school in rural Victoria.

In Australia, public schools are called "Government schools" since they are financed and administered by the government. Government schools educate the majority of students and do not charge large tuition fees (most do charge a fee as a "contribution to costs"). The major part of their costs is met by the relevant State or Territory government. Government schools can be divided into two types: open and selective. The open schools accept all students from their government defined catchment areas, while selective schools have high entrance requirements and cater to a much larger area. Entrance to selective schools is often highly competitive.

New Zealand

In New Zealand, primary and secondary education is compulsory for students between the ages of 6 and 16 (15 with parental and school permission), and is a right until the end of the calendar year following the student's 19th birthday. There are three types of school: State, private (or registered or independent), and state integrated schools. State and state integrated schools are government funded. State integrated schools are former private schools which are now "integrated" into the state system under the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975.[8]



The Danish School system is supported by tax-based governmental and municipal funding from day care through primary and secondary education to higher education. There are no tuition fees for regular students in public schools and universities. The Danish public primary schools, covering the entire period of compulsory education, are called folkeskoler (literally "people's schools" or "public schools").[9] The Folkeskole consists of a voluntary pre-school class, the nine-year obligatory course, and a voluntary tenth year. It thus caters for pupils aged 6 to 17.

It is also possible for parents to send their children to various kinds of private schools. These schools also receive government funding, although they are not public. In addition to this funding, these schools may charge a fee from the parents.

England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

In England, Wales, Northern Ireland the term "public school" refers to fee-charging independent secondary schools. These schools were (and are) public in the sense of being open to all students in principle, though at the time of their foundation most older schools were run by the established Church and were only open to boys of the same denomination.

In these countries, the terms state school and county school are used for schools provided at public expense. The National Curriculum is followed in all state schools in England, Northern Ireland, and Wales. In Northern Ireland secondary-level schools are divided into Grammar schools, Secondary modern schools and Catholic-maintained schools, with an increasing number of Integrated schools. Throughout education in the UK, state schools are under the control of local councils (Local Education Authorities in England and Wales; Department of Education in Northern Ireland), save for cases where independent schools are funded directly as in City Academies. Thus, in the great majority of cases the phrase "state school" is a misnomer, and the more correct term "maintained school" is used in technical literature.


In France the educational system is highly centralized, organized, and stratified. It is divided into three stages:

  • Primary education (enseignement primaire)
  • Secondary education (enseignement secondaire)
  • Tertiary or college education (enseignement supérieur)

Only the first two are compulsory, and even then academic progress and ability are determining factors of which type of education a student receives.

Academic councils called académies (academies) are responsible for supervising all aspects of public education in a given region. Schools are answerable to their académie, and the académies are answerable to the Ministry of Education. French territory is divided into 35 académies, 26 of which are located in mainland France and 9 in French overseas territories. One académie often spans a few départements, the most commonly used administrative unit in France. Académies also cover French schools located abroad so that the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in London, for example, falls under the jurisdiction of the Lille académie.[10]

The académie headquarters (termed rectorat) is usually located in the largest city in the concerned territory. It is headed by a recteur. The main responsibility of the académie is to manage personnel and state budgets pertaining to the education system. It serves as a link between regional specificities and the centralized governing body in Paris. It ensures the implementation of the official educational programs produced by the Ministry. At one level down in the national education hierarchy, each département also has its own inspection académique (academic inspection), headed by an inspecteur d'académie (academy inspector).[10]


Education in Germany is provided to a large extent by the government, with control coming from state level, (Länder) and funding coming from two levels: federal and state. Curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through the respective states ministry of education. Decisions about the acknowledgment of private schools (the German equivalent to accreditation in the U.S.) are also made by these ministries. However, public schools are automatically recognized, since these schools are supervised directly by the ministry of education bureaucracy.[11]

The secondary school "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe" in Pirna in Saxony, Germany.

A German public school does not charge tuition fees. The first stage of the German public school system is the Grundschule. (Primary School—first to fourth grade, or in Berlin and Brandenburg first to sixth grade) After Grundschule (at 10 or 12 years of age), there are four secondary schooling options:

  • Hauptschule (the least academic, much like a modernized Volksschule) until ninth grade, or in Berlin and North Rhine-Westphalia until tenth grade
  • Realschule (formerly Mittelschule) until tenth grade
  • Gymnasium (high school) until 12th grade or 13th grade (with Abitur as the exit exam which qualifies the student for admission to university)
  • Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) with all the options of the three "tracks" above

In Germany, most institutions of higher education are subsidized by German states and are therefore also referred to as staatliche Hochschulen. (public universities) Most German public universities and polytechnics do not charge for tuition, though fees for guest or graduate students are charged by many universities. However, many German states have made plans to introduce general tuition fees for all students at public institutions of higher education.[11]

North America


Queen Elizabeth School in Canada

Public school education in Canada is a provincial responsibility and, as such, there are many variations between the provinces. Junior kindergarten (or equivalent) exists as an official program in some, but not most, places. kindergarten (or equivalent) is available in every province, but provincial funding and the level of hours provided varies widely. Starting at grade one, at about age five, there is universal publicly-funded access up to grade twelve (or equivalent). Schools are generally divided into elementary or primary school (kindergarten to Grade 7), and secondary, or high school (grade 8 to 12). In some schools, particularly in rural areas, the elementary and middle levels can be combined into one school.

Some Canadian provinces offer publicly-funded and publicly-regulated, religiously-based education as an option. In Ontario, for example, Roman Catholic schools are known as "Catholic school," not "public school," although these are, by definition, no less "public" than their secular counterparts. The Act of Parliament which brought Alberta into Confederation stipulated that each school district in the province must have both a "public school system" and a "separate school system." Despite their names, both school systems are considered "public" in the greater scope of the term, as both are funded by taxpayers. A certain proportion of property taxes are allocated to schools; each taxpayer chooses which school system he or she wishes to support, and is allowed to vote for school trustees based on their choice. In Calgary, Jewish, Sikh, and Hindu public schools are also supported by the separate school system.

United States

The Seward School, Seattle, Washington.

Public school education is the standard form of education in the United States and is provided mainly by local governments, with control and funding coming from three levels: federal, state, and local. The institutions were known as "common schools" in the nineteenth century, the term coined by Horace Mann, referring to the fact that they were meant to serve individuals of all social classes and religions. Curricula, funding, teaching, and other policies are set through locally elected school boards by jurisdiction over school districts. The school districts are special-purpose districts authorized by provisions of state law. Generally, state governments can and do set minimum standards relating to almost all activities of primary and secondary schools, as well as funding and authorization to enact local school taxes to support the schools—primarily through property taxes. The federal government funds aid to states and school districts that meet minimum federal standards. School accreditation decisions are made by voluntary regional associations.

Public school is normally split up into three stages: Primary (elementary) school (kindergarten to 4th, 5th, or 6th grade), junior high (also "intermediate," or "middle") school (5th, 6th, or 7th to 8th or 9th) and high school (9th or 10th to 12th, somewhat archaically also called "secondary school"), with some less populated communities incorporating high school as 7th to 12th. Some junior high schools contain 7th to 9th grades or 7th and 8th, in which case the high school is 10th to 12th or 9th to 12th respectively.

In the United States, institutions of higher education that are operated and subsidized by states are also referred to as "public." However, unlike public secondary schools, public universities charge tuition and fees, though usually at a much lower rate than those charged by private universities, particularly for "in-state" students. Community colleges, state colleges, and state universities are examples of public institutions of higher education. In particular, many state universities are regarded as among the best institutions of higher education in the U.S., though usually they are surpassed in ranking by certain private universities and colleges, such as those of the Ivy League, which are often very expensive and extremely selective in the students they accept. In several states, the administrations of public universities are elected via the general electoral ballot.

South America

In some South American countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, the term "public schools" (escuelas públicas in Spanish, escolas públicas in Portuguese) is used for educational institutions owned by the federal, state, or city governments which do not charge tuition. Such schools exist in all levels of education, from the very beginning through post-secondary studies. The later years of schooling are comparable to the state university systems in most U.S. states.


Education in Brazil is regulated by the federal government, through the Ministry of Education, which defines the guiding principles for the organization of educational programs. Local governments are responsible for establishing state and educational programs following the guidelines and using the funding supplied by the federal government. Brazilian children must attend school a minimum of nine years, however the schooling is usually inadequate. Today, Brazil struggles to improve the public education offered at earlier stages and maintain the high standards that the population has come to expect from public universities. The choice on public funding is an issue. In particular, the U.N. Development Goal of Universal Primary Education and a larger offer of education for students with special needs are pursued by Brazilian policy-makers.[12]


Primary and secondary school are mandatory for all Chileans. The Chilean state provides a free public system of primary and secondary school education for those who cannot afford a private education. Public schools are funded by the government and managed by municipalities (local governments). Prior to that, only primary school education was mandatory for Chileans. On May 7, 2003, former president Ricardo Lagos issued a law making high school education mandatory, giving the state responsibility for education of all Chileans under 18 years old. The twelve years of mandatory, free education make Chile a special case within Latin America.


Children are required to attend school from the age of six in Venezuela. They attend primary school until they are eleven. They are then promoted to the second level of basic education, where they stay until they are 14 or 15. Public schools make up a majority of the schools children attend due to poverty. Public school students usually attend classes in shifts. Some go to school from early in the morning until about 1:30 p.m. and others attend from early afternoon until about 6:00 p.m. All schoolchildren wear uniforms. Although education is mandatory for children, some poor children do not attend school because they must work to support their families.

Venezuela has more than 90 institutions of higher education, with more than 6 million students. Higher education was free under the 1999 constitution and received 35 percent of the education budget, even though it accounted for only 11 percent of the student population. More than 70 percent of university students come were the wealthiest quintile of the population. To address this problem, the government established the Bolivarian University system in 2003, designed to democratize access to higher education.[13]


  1. Richard Gottheil and Samuel Krauss, Joshua (Jesus) Ben Gamla, Jewish Encyclopedia Retrieved September 13, 2008
  2. National Dossier on Education and Training in Scotland, 2004, Chapter 2—General Organisation of the Education System and Administration of Education, The Scottish Government Publications. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  3. UNESCO, Kenya: Basic Education Indicators, Nairobi Office, 2006. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  4. R.F. Price, Education in Modern China (Routledge, 2005, ISBN 0415361672).
  5. Anuradha De and Jean Dreze, Public Report on Basic Education in India (Oxford University Press, 1993, ISBN 0195648706).
  6. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2006, Upper Secondary School. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  7. Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, 2006, Educational Administration and Finance. Retrieved September 14, 2008.
  8. New Zealand Ministry of Education, 1998, Private Schools Conditional Integration Act 1975. Retrieved September 18, 2008.
  9. Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, 2008, Education. Retrieved September 13, 2008.
  10. 10.0 10.1 H.D. Lewis, The French Education System (Palgrave Macmillan, 1986, ISBN 0312304544).
  11. 11.0 11.1 Eric Solsten (ed.), Education, Germany: A Country Study (Washington, DC: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1995). Retrieved September 14, 2008
  12. Brazil-Brazil, Education in Brazil.
  13. Dan Lips, Education Notebook: Venezuela's Education Lesson, The Heritage Foundation. Retrieved September 14, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Caldwell, Brian. Future Of Schools: Lessons From The Reform Of Public Education. Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0750707232.
  • De, Anuradha, and Jean Dreze. Public Report on Basic Education in India. Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0195648706.
  • Hörner, Wolfgang, Hans Döbert, Botho von Kopp, and Wolfgang Mitter. The Education Systems of Europe Springer, 2006. ISBN 1402048688.
  • Lewis, H. D. The French Education System. Palgrave Macmillan, 1986. ISBN 0312304544.
  • McKerlich, Bill. Twelve Steps to Reform Canadian Public Education. Trafford Publishing, 2006. ISBN 1553697669.
  • Price, R. F. Education in Modern China. Routledge, 2005. ISBN 0415361672.
  • Reese, William J. America's Public Schools: From the Common School to "No Child Left Behind". Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. ISBN 080188196X.
  • Tan, Jee-Peng. Education in Asia: A Comparative Study of Cost and Financing. World Bank Publications, 1992. ISBN 082132098X.


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