Compulsory education laws – can they be justified?

compulsory education laws

In order to understand compulsory education laws, it is important to dive into the field of Sociology of Law since it has a specific focus on the relationship between laws and society.

According to the author Thomas Mathisen, this relationship can be divided in three main components:[2]

  • The influence of law on society
  • Societies’ influence on laws
  • The independent interaction between law and society

The four building blocks of Sociology of Law

Within the field of Sociology of Law, a fundament of four core elements can be distinguished to explain what foundations or ‘building blocks’ the discipline consists of.[3]

Roughly translated, these can be described as:

  1. The law in books or formal laws, are institutionalized laws which are written down in the lawbook.[4] 
  2. Social norms or informal laws, are non-institutionalized yet still present in society. These unofficial laws can be translated as the norms and values which are present in society.[5] 
  3. The legal practice can be explained as how the institutionalized laws are used or followed in the everyday reality.[6] 
  4. The social practice can be explained as to what extent the informal laws that are present in a society are actually followed in everyday life.[7]

These four building blocks of sociology of law are continuously influencing one another in multiple directions. Many research questions within the field of sociology of law can therefore be linked to one or more of these relations.

One of these relations that is rather interesting to investigate, is the existence of compulsory education laws.

Compulsory education laws for minors

In many countries, education is compulsory for minors. This topic is particularly interesting since compulsory education is a form of legislation which is created by adults but not applicable to themselves.

While adults have the ability to influence the establishment of new laws that are applicable to them, by for example using their right to vote, become an activist or move abroad, children do not. Children cannot influence laws applicable to them since they do not have the right to vote, they do not have the ability to move abroad on their own and so on. Compulsory education could therefore be seen as a form of oppression.

The fact that it is not perceived as oppression in many countries, insinuates that it is generally regarded ethically correct to maintain the existence of compulsory education.

This might start with the idea that educational training is good for both the individual and the state and children might not be aware of that importance until they reach adulthood. Though more generally, the importance of compulsory education might be reduced to the idea that an educational training is a valuable asset to have.

This belief may be embedded in the social practice in which it comes forward that an education holds a certain value for the purpose of social mobility.

When a society is based on a meritocratic foundation, this social consensus might lead to the implementation of compulsory education in formal laws. Hereby, the link from social practice to formal laws is very evident.[8]

Oftentimes, the everyday social practice is taken as a foundation for political decisions and law proposals by different parties that are involved in that process.[9] 

In this particular matter, it is extremely difficult though to decide what is good for children since that discussion has multiple layers.

To begin with, the idea of compulsory education can be discussed and whether children should have a right on education or whether they should be obliged to attend an educational training. Afterwards, when a consensus might be reached that education for minor should be compulsory, the curriculum for that educational training should be decided.

Justifying compulsory education laws

In order to defend the existence of compulsory education, it should quite likely be beneficial to the individual. Since that differs from person to person, these kinds of questions become increasingly difficult to answer the further they develop. At the same time, these questions show the relationship between the formal laws, informal laws, legal practice and social practice.[10] 

When parents refuse to send their child to school, they are for example according to the formal laws punishable. Whether that actually happens or not belongs to the terrain of the legal practice.

How the legal practice is carried out may determine the social practice which influences the informal laws.

This ‘circle of influence’ of the theoretical- and practical legal reality makes the existence of compulsory education another interesting and relevant socio-legal question and proves the strong ties between them.[11]

The fact that compulsory education exists in many countries, might indicate that the existence of compulsory education is generally supported. This gives us adults an important responsibility to continuously seek for an answer on the question who’s interests the educational system should serve.


Baier, M; Svensson, M; Nafstad, I. Om rättssociologi: en introduktion. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2018.

[1] Baier, M; Svensson, M; Nafstad, I. Om rättssociologi: en introduktion. Lund: Studentlitteratur, 2018. p.9

[2] Ibid. p.11

[3] Ibid. p.14

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p.15

[8]Ibid. p.20

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid. p.16

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