This article addresses the role of the state and state formation in the establishment of national education during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Through a comparative case analysis of two countries at the European periphery (Finland and Turkey), this article shows how national educational systems, in both instances, were driven by periods of intense state building. In the nineteenth century, military defeats sparked educational reforms, and in the early nineteenth century school laws were enacted due to the establishment of the republics of Finland and Turkey. Nevertheless, these examples also show the limits of a state formation perspective. Despite changes in educational policy, neither state reached high enrolment levels in the nineteenth century, and only in Finland schooling for all was realised in the 1930s. Thus, this work encourages further comparative analyses of the social, economic and political circumstances in which these states acted.