UK education: Average won't do

Aerial view of exam hall

The impression created by the OECD's triennial assessment of educational performance - its Programme for International Student Assessment, or Pisa - is that the UK is a slightly lazy and spoiled rich kid, that does a bit of last-minute cramming to scrape a pass, but disappoints relative to its economic advantages.

Or to put it another way, the performance of UK 15-year-olds is pretty average in respect of outcomes - bang on the international average for maths and reading, a bit above in science - but that doesn't look great, given that the UK spends well above the average on education and its students are significantly richer than in many countries where attainment is much higher.

The top of the league table is dominated by Asia, and China in particular: Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, Korea, Macao and Japan, in that order.

Which means that the gap between per capita wealth in the rich West and in the developing economies of the East will continue to narrow, all other things being equal, given the link between prosperity and education.

The gap between the mean maths attainment of Shanghai adolescents and British ones is a particularly stunning 24%. That's almost as unbridgeable a gap as between Barcelona FC and AFC Wimbledon in football.

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The only positive thing to say about the UK is that the waste of education resources is not as bad - apparently - as in the US”

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And what is perhaps even more shattering, low achievers in maths represent just 3.8% of Shanghai's total, compared with an OECD average of 23% and 22% in the UK.

A couple of years ago, I spent some time with a Shanghai family, when making my documentary series "How the West Went Bust". The girl student in that family would put almost any western student to shame, with her industry and application.

Or to put it another way, these differential outcomes between places like the UK and Shanghai are not just about the structure and resources of schools, but also about national culture and family values. This Chinese family not only created a study-conducive atmosphere in their small apartment, but were saving a huge share of a small income so that their child could afford to go to the best university.

So if the UK wants to secure a rosier economic future, as much of the necessary work to raise education standards may well have to take place in the home as in the school.

Which is not to say that how the state spends money on education is irrelevant.

It is striking that the UK spends 18% more than the OECD average schooling each child aged between six and 15, for an outcome that is totally average, which rather implies there is something wrong in the schools themselves.

The only positive thing to say about the UK is that the waste of education resources is not as bad - apparently - as in the US, which spends 17% more per student than we do for results that are even worse than ours.

Which implies that most of the developed western economies, with the exception of better-performing Canada, Switzerland, Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands, are in the same handcart to a penurious hell.

For what it is worth, the OECD believes that the most successful education systems are those where there is a huge emphasis on improving the qualities of teachers, and those teachers have considerable autonomy in the classroom. And by the way, it does not believe size of class is all that important.

Certainly in respect of teacher independence, that description of high-performing schools does not sound like the UK.

And the OECD says that more successful countries in education are those that make a huge and successful effort to raise the attainment of underprivileged kids. In this respect the UK is again - you've guessed it - distinctly average.

Robert Peston Article written by Robert Peston Robert Peston Economics editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 481.

    Striving economies produce striving education/children. Look at Germany post war but it is starting to slope back. Once the country has attained "mature" wealth status there are enough elite children that the state system will not be needed to be top notch and the children will not be driven by parents to high achievement. We are comfortable why break your back to get more??

  • rate this

    Comment number 480.

    That 80% of the orientals were having after school tutors seems to suggest that the day time schools are not the miracle that is being touted?

  • rate this

    Comment number 479.

    I had a look some of pisa maths questions as presented by many web sotes. So it is taking S Korean students 13 hrs a day and 4 hours sleep to get them right? doesnt seem such an achievement to me, in fact seems the opposite, they must be pretty dim ( probably as dim as ours )

  • rate this

    Comment number 478.

    well what do u expect from a society that pays & treat teachers as if they are the lowest of the low & put a premium on private Eton/Oxbridge based education for the best jobs? Who is going to spend 13 hours a day in "education" when the the system has been stitched up? A few hardy souls maybe. The result a consumption driven society thru which to any energy is expressed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 477.

    The constant race to be the best is ridiculous. It is how they trap you into performing. It robs you of your sanity to constantly want to achieve more. Just look at politicians. They are all depressive fakes and semi-achievers themselves. Take a look at 'Great' britain!

  • rate this

    Comment number 476.

    Maths is the most useful subject at school, but to a certain extent; almost nobody uses a box and whisker plot (I think they're next to useless). I'm not saying this shouldn't be taught, but alternative qualifications should be offered for those that don't have a cat in hells chance in GCSE Maths, i.e. GCSE Arithmetic. This way employers can see who can at least add up and who can't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 475.

    Retired teacher. I often put in a 60 hour week. Long holidays? I spent a lot of holiday time working. We spend hours on bureaucratic nonsense and being social workers. There is constant change. The culture in other countries encourages students to study unlike ours ie TV soaps. Parents increasingly do not support the school. Teachers need to be energetic in front of students not exhausted.

  • Comment number 474.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    If ONLY people would behave AS IF 'in it together', no suspicion of cheating for petty advantage (& collective ruin), or of pretending loyalty but on appointment or election misdirecting for personal or class advantage (& collective ruin)

    If ONLY 'in it together', agreed on Equal Partnership, free to follow conscience, to educate & to chide, rarely needing penalty

    Why NOT?

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    "Mr Gove...-is trying to break with Labour mediocrity"


    I'm generally a Labour voter, but I agree with some of Gove's key observations.

    The thread though, addresses the facts as to the UK's performance as it is today.

    The problem any gov would have, is starting from HERE. The professions can only do so much. Popular mentalities must be changed. There's the rub.

  • Comment number 471.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    468.The J Hoovers Witnesses "..The Tories, unashamedly,.."

    462.Factchecker515 "..Feeble Labour can only bleat.."

    Try this equation: -

    Pinky + Perky = Bacon

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    its politicians of all parties that have left the education of this country in the position its in now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    The Tories, unashamedly, have set out to prevent the organisation of any popular party which would pose a threat to their general dominance. To make a mockery of democracy itself, in effect.

    The grammar schools supplied many who organised effective opposition, and so Labour sought to extend this standard with the comps.

    Little surprise that Thatcher set about turning them all to sec mods.

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    The obsession is with maths and science and not even for educational reasons but economic inter-national competition. Pupils who have a special bent in one direction - literature, languages etc - should not have their lives ruined by being forced late into their teens into subjects that don't suit them. If oriental countries become educationally fanatical, must we ?

  • Comment number 466.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.


    " IQ, a trait with which you are born"


    Please supply authoritative evidence for that claim.

    There will always be the exceptional, but the evidence I've seen suggests the large majority, (and that is what concerns us here, not the occasional Mozart, Einstein etc.), are born with innately similar aptitude to learn, including the thought processes which raise IQ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    IMO it is important that young people should be reasonably happy at school.
    If they are unhappy they will switch off and not learn.
    Also too much work can be counterproductive and result in a dull student.
    I agree however on the importance of hard work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    We need to build more grammar schools, not knock them down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    All 16yo GCSE takers started education in 2002/3, 5 years into the Blair regime. They are the output of the Labour years and the results are dismal. In Wales where Labour continues in power, it's even worse.

    Mr Gove - working class bright boy - is trying to break with Labour mediocrity & is getting results. Feeble Labour can only bleat but should hang its head in shame.


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