The word school derives from Greek σχολή  (scholē), originally meaning "leisure" and also "that in which leisure is employed", but later "a group to whom lectures were given, school".

In Western Europe a considerable number of cathedral schools were founded during the Early Middle Ages in order to teach future clergy and administrators, with the oldest still existing, and continuously operated, cathedral schools being The King's School, Canterbury (established 597 CE), King's School, Rochester (established 604 CE), St Peter's School, York (established 627 CE) and Thetford Grammar School (established 631 CE). Beginning in the 5th century CE monastic schools were also established throughout Western Europe, teaching both religious and secular subjects.

Islam was another culture that developed a school system in the modern sense of the word. Emphasis was put on knowledge, which required a systematic way of teaching and spreading knowledge, and purpose-built structures. At first, mosques combined both religious performance and learning activities, but by the 9th century, the madrassa was introduced, a school that was built independently from the mosque, such as al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 CE. They were also the first to make the Madrassa system a public domain under the control of the Caliph.

Under the Ottomans, the towns of Bursa and Edirne became the main centers of learning. The Ottoman system of Külliye, a building complex containing a mosque, a hospital, madrassa, and public kitchen and dining areas, revolutionized the education system, making learning accessible to a wider public through its free meals, health care and sometimes free accommodation.

Obligatory school attendance became common in parts of Europe during the 18th century. In Denmark-Norway, this was introduced as early as in 1739-1741, the primary end being to increase the literacy of the almue, i.e. the "regular people". Many of the earlier public schools in the United States and elsewhere were one-room schools where a single teacher taught seven grades of boys and girls in the same classroom. Beginning in the 1920s, one-room schools were consolidated into multiple classroom facilities with transportation increasingly provided by kid hacks and school buses.