Primary or elementary education describes the first years of formal, structured education that occur during childhood. In most Western countries, it is compulsory for children to receive primary education (though in many jurisdictions it is permissible for parents to provide it).
Primary education generally begins when children are four to seven years of age. The division between primary and secondary education is somewhat arbitrary, but it generally occurs at about twelve years of age (adolescence); some educational systems have separate middle schools for that period. Primary and secondary education together are sometimes (in particular, in Canada and the United States) referred to as "K-12" education, (K is for kindergarten, 12 is for twelfth grade).
Typically, primary education is provided in schools, where (in the absence of parental movement or other intervening factors) the child will stay, in steadily advancing classes, until they complete it and move on to secondary schooling. Children are usually placed in classes with one teacher who will be primarily responsible for their education and welfare for that year. This teacher may be assisted to varying degrees by specialist teachers in certain subject areas, often music or physical education. The continuity with a single teacher and the opportunity to build up a close relationship with the class is a notable feature of the primary education system. Over the past few decades, schools have been testing various arrangements which break from the one-teacher, one-class mold.
The major goals of primary education are achieving basic literacy and numeracy amongst all their students, as well as establishing foundations in science, geography, history and other social sciences. The relative priority of various areas, and the methods used to teach them, are an area of considerable political debate.
Traditionally, various forms of corporal punishment have been an integral part of early education. Recently this practice has come under attack, and in some cases been outlawed, in Western countries at least.
The elementary school consists of the first seven years of school, that is, grades 1 through 5 or 6, as well as kindergarten, a preliminary year of school before grade 1 (known in England and Wales as 'Reception'). Originally, however, it was studied after primary school in the 19th century. Also known as grammar school in the United States it is a major segment of compulsory education. Until the latter third of the 20th century, however, grammar school (or elementary school) was grades 1 through 8. After grammar school, one usually attends high school. (In many districts, grades 5-8 or 5-9 were called "middle school", or further separated into "intermediate school" and "junior high school".)