Education is traditionally regarded as a means of social mobility, so most parents are willing to invest heavily in children's schooling. Much of the responsibility for providing education rests with the public sector; a large and largely uncontrolled private educational sector has thrived also, suggesting some dissatisfaction with public sector facilities and enabling the rich and powerful to get more value for their money.

Islamic education had been available since the early nineteenth century. The first secondary school is the CMS Grammar School, founded in 1859 by Rev. T. B. Macauley, a Sierra Leonean expatriate. Known subsequently as Anglican Boys Grammar School, the school still operates today in Bàríga, one of the several outlying towns around Lagos.

In 1960, the city had 112 primary schools and 20 secondary schools. Two years later, 124 primary schools on the island enrolled an estimated 96,152 pupils, divided roughly equally between boys and girls. Fifty secondary schools also catered to about 10,000 students, one-third of them female. Enrollment in all formal educational institutions, including the University of Lagos, totaled 108,140; just over half (52 percent) were male while 48 percent were female.

The economic boom of the 1970s and elected civilian government from 1979 brought with them substantial expansion in educational facilities and access. In 1981, about 125,000 pupils, or one-fifth of the population, were enrolled in the city's primary schools; secondary schools on the island also catered to about 26,000 or less than five percent of the population. By 1989, 877 government-owned primary schools in the metropolitan area employed 15,000 teachers; 342 secondary schools had nearly 12,000 teachers. Adult education programs also ran in the rural areas. The sex ratio has been nearly balanced over the years, though more males than females enter higher institutions, including universities. The literacy rate is estimated at 20 percent in greater Lagos. Figures for the city may well be double.