The earliest structured education system in Indonesia was introduced along with the spread of Islam to the region from the 13th century. Islamic scholars established boarding school-like centers called pesantren as institutions of religious study (Frederick & Worden, 2011, p. 120). While the main purpose was to educate and train individuals who wished to dedicate themselves to religious studies, and were therefore not offering education for all, this early structure has continued to exist to the present day.
When the Dutch East India Company made Indonesia a colony in the 16th century, they established schools for colonists, but it wasn’t until Queen Wilhelmina’s “ethical policy” in 1901 that public schooling was expanded to become more accessible to the local population (Frederick & Worden, 2011, p. 38). Even then, attendance was limited to elite native students living in cities. This development, however, eventually led to Indonesians founding their own schools modeled on the Dutch system to make education more accessible.
Dutch control of the region was suspended by Japanese occupation during World War II. Indonesia took advantage of the Japanese ousting the Dutch and at the end of the war in 1945 it declared its independence from the Netherlands, which was ultimately recognized in 1949. The newly formed Indonesian state spent the next 50 years finding its footing as a democratic nation made up of many islands, ethnicities, languages, and religions.