The IBE was founded in Geneva as a private, non-governmental organization in 1925. Its aims were to centralize documentation related to public and private education, to take an interest in scientific research in the educational field, and to serve as a coordinating centre for institutions and societies concerned with education.
The newly-founded organization was to a large extent a Genevese initiative. Among the founding fathers were Edouard Claparède, Pierre Bovet and Adolphe Ferrière.
In 1929, under new statutes, the IBE extended membership to governments, while it remained open to public institutions and international organizations. It thus became the first intergovernmental organization in the field of education.
At the same time, Jean Piaget, professor of psychology at the University of Geneva, was appointed director. His name became closely associated with the organization, which he led for almost forty years. During the same period, Pedro Rosselló was assistant director.
Since 1934, the IBE has organized the International Conference on Public Education (now the International Conference on Education) which, from 1946 onwards, was convened together with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), founded in 1945. In 1969, the IBE became an integral part of UNESCO while retaining intellectual and functional autonomy.
In 1999 the IBE became the UNESCO institute responsible for educational contents, methods and teaching/learning strategies through curriculum development.