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Minimum age for completion of compulsory education

Art.28 of the CRC requires States to ensure that primary education is free and compulsory. However, the Convention neither mentions an explicit minimum age for the completion of compulsory education, nor recommends a specific compulsory length. This is understandable given that the text of each article needed to be agreed by consensus and that the choice of particular ages had already raised debates and difficulties in the case of art.1 (definition of the child) and art.38 (children in armed conflicts).[1] A more flexible formulation may have seemed more amenable to agreement. This flexibility and vagueness, however, allows a variety of implementation measures and entails the risk of significant disparities in the application of one of the core elements of the right to education.
Despite the lack of a defined age for the end of compulsory education in the CRC, the Committee has indicated that States should establish clear limits. The first set of Guidelines for Periodic Reports, for instance, required States to “indicate the particular measures adopted to make primary education compulsory and available free for all, particularly children, indicating the minimum age for enrolment in primary school, the minimum and maximum ages for compulsory education”.[2]
In this respect, it is worth noting that it is no longer valid to assume that the length of compulsory education maps exactly onto that of primary education. The vast majority of countries considered here have in fact extended compulsory education beyond primary schooling and some have also included early childhood education at the other end of the spectrum.
An overview comparative table summarising the findings of this research is available here – for the detailed excerpts these figures are drawn from please consult our country database, under the heading 'National law and policies on minimum ages'. The methodology employed in this research is described in detail here.
Figure 2 shows that the highest number of States considered in this review (24) set compulsory education between 6 and 15 years of age, thus ensuring it for 9 years. However, variations in the starting or finishing age should alert us to the fact that compulsory education still seems subject to the vagaries of national systems and resources. As briefly mentioned above, additional concerns may arise from the difficulties in some States of relying on birth registration and census for the implementation and monitoring of the right to compulsory education for all the children who are supposed to receive it. Such difficulties are of particular relevance for remote or neglected geographical areas or situations in which such indicators may be lacking or unavailable, thus posing severe threats to the provision of available and accessible education.
Research findings also show that education is still not compulsory in at least 35 countries. This figure can be assumed to be even higher in practice given the number of countries which fail to report at all whether or not education is compulsory, or report unclear information (an additional 31 countries, as indicated in Figure 3). There are a number of different situations which are categorised as “not compulsory”. For example, in their reports certain States acknowledge outright that education is not compulsory. Others affirm that the right to education is enshrined in the Constitution or other legal instruments but the report does not specify an age range between enrolment and completion through which it is possible to verify compliance and make education truly available to all. Whether this is a gap in the legislation itself or a fault in reporting, the case remains that the State is not providing the necessary parameters as required by the CRC Committee, hence the age falls under the “not compulsory” category. In very few instances there are also exceptions or exemptions from the obligation of compulsory education. In such cases compulsory education is equated with public/State schooling, whereas in other countries it is clearly a far broader concept encompassing all educational establishments regulated by public authorities, including those which are privately administered, or even in some cases "home schooling". Some States cite economic or social conditions as obstacles to the full realization of free and compulsory primary education, thus impeding accessibility, availability and adaptability. As the 4A framework indicates, declarations that education is compulsory are not in themselves sufficient guarantees that human rights requirements are being met. Nor do they ensure protection from abusive or exploitative situations. This is why the gap between principles and reality needs to be evaluated more accurately.
In terms of specific ages: when indicated, they range from 10 to 18, with the majority of countries setting the end of compulsory education between the ages of 14 and 16. This would be relatively good and generally in line with
the minimum age for employment, if it weren’t for the fact that the number of countries that set it at 15 (36) or 16 (37) is almost the same as those for which education is not compulsory (35). The issue then becomes how to bring those 35 countries to the other side of the graph and make sure that the relationship between the end of compulsory education and other minimum ages is made more coherent.


[1] For the full discussions see Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Legislative History of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (New York and Geneva: United Nations, 2007), pp. 301-313 and 775-799.
[2] CRC Committee, General Guidelines regarding the form and contents of periodic reports to be submitted by Sates Parties under article 44, paragraph 1(b), of the Convention, UN document CRC/C/58, 1996, paragraph 107.