UK education sixth in global ranking

Praying for exam results in South Korea Parents in South Korea, earlier this month, pray for their children's exam results

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The UK's education system is ranked sixth best in the developed world, according to a global league table published by education firm Pearson.

The first and second places are taken by Finland and South Korea.

The rankings combine international test results and data such as graduation rates between 2006 and 2010.

Sir Michael Barber, Pearson's chief education adviser, says successful countries give teachers a high status and have a "culture" of education.

International comparisons in education have become increasingly significant - and this latest league table is based upon a series of global test results combined with measures of education systems, such as how many people go on to university.

This composite picture puts the UK in a stronger position than the influential Pisa tests from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - which is also one of the tests included in this ranking.

The weightings for the rankings have been produced for Pearson by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Global competition

The two education superpowers - Finland and South Korea - are followed by three other high-performing Asian education systems - Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.


  • Finland
  • South Korea
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • UK
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Switzerland
  • Canada
  • Ireland
  • Denmark
  • Australia
  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Belgium
  • USA
  • Hungary
  • Slovakia
  • Russia

The UK - which is considered as a single system, rather than four devolved administrations - is then ranked at the head of an above-average group including the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland.

These are ahead of a middle-ranking group including the United States, Germany and France.

At the lowest end are Mexico, Brazil and Indonesia.

These comparisons draw upon tests that are taken every three or four years, in areas such as maths, science and literacy - and so present a picture lagging by several years.

But the intention is to provide a more multi-dimensional view of educational achievement - and create a databank which will be updated, in a project that Pearson is calling the Learning Curve.

Looking at education systems that succeed, the study concludes that spending is important, but not as much as having a culture that is supportive of learning.

It says that spending is easier to measure, but the more complex impact of a society's attitude to education can make a big difference.

The success of Asian countries in these rankings reflects the high value attached to education and the expectations of parents. This can continue to be a factor when families migrate to other countries, says the report accompanying the rankings.

Looking at the two top countries - Finland and South Korea - the report says that there are many big differences, but the common factor is a shared social belief in the importance of education and its "underlying moral purpose".

Teacher quality

The report also emphasises the importance of high-quality teachers and the need to find ways to recruit the best staff. This might be about status and professional respect as well as levels of pay.

The rankings show that there is no clear link between higher relative pay and higher performance.

And there are direct economic consequences of high and low performing education systems, the study says, particularly in a globalised, skill-based economy.

But there are less straightforward and conflicting messages about how schools are organised.

The ranking for levels of school choice shows that Finland and South Korea have among the lowest levels of school choice. But Singapore, another high performer, has the highest level. The UK is among the upper levels in terms of school choice.

'Significant' data

Higher levels of school autonomy are a characteristic of many higher performing systems - headed by China, the Netherlands, the UK and Hong Kong (which is considered as a separate school system in such education rankings).

But Finland, the most successful system, has a relatively low level of school autonomy.

Sir Michael Barber, a former adviser to Tony Blair, said that the gathering of this information was the "start of something significant" - providing a practical resource for policy makers wanting to learn from other countries.

In terms of the UK's performance, he said it fitted into the view that education standards had risen at the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s and had then levelled off.

Labour's education spokesman Stephen Twigg said the findings reflected the achievements of the previous government.

"This report shows that after 13 years of investment and reform with Labour, schools in the UK are amongst the best in the world."

And he said the findings did not provide evidence for the current government's support for free schools.

"This shows there is much more to school performance than structures," said Mr Twigg.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "We are driving up standards right across the board by bringing the best graduates into teaching, developing a world-class curriculum, and restoring order to our classrooms.

"We are driving forward the academies and free schools programmes with more than half of secondary schools now enjoying academy status.

"We have introduced the EBacc so more pupils are encouraged to study the core academic subjects that universities and employers demand and we will be introducing a new, far more rigorous examination system."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 920.

    Your kidding me, we rank that highly ? I suspect whoever made the rankings has not actually seen the dross that is being churned out from a large number of our new universities. Seriously I have met a law grad form one of these uni's claiming a 1st, who had never heard of Jeremy Bentham or any legal philosophers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 919.

    If this were true, most international students should be heading to those countries, instead of USA (the top choice).Best universities are in USA although it is rated 17th here; obviously something is missing.
    By my own reckoning, research standards in UK are mediocre at best. Ph.D gets awarded based on whims and fancies (someone with ZERO publications can get it (something unacceptable in USA).

  • rate this

    Comment number 918.

    The crocs of this is that the UK maybe number 6, based on several variables, such as average class sizes, the amount of top grade students based on an international points system to allow for such things as; A levels and GCSE equivalents from one country to hold equal status in another, the issue is that this only reflects the good stuff, so this table is a false positive, were more like 15th.

  • rate this

    Comment number 917.

    One of my relatives has just given up a job in a College.
    She was teaching 16yr olds how to read and write!
    As well as illiteracy none of them hadher expected moral standards of behaviour.Forget your educational rankings.
    Fix what is broken.Consistent undermining by both major political parties to blame.
    Families used to instil values.Not anymore insome areas,was that a political aim?Possibly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 916.

    So we dumb down Univeristy admission by providing scores of meaningless low grade courses so that a false target of 50% of young people can go to University. Then we leap up the tales because number of people going to University is one of the criteria. What a surprise

  • rate this

    Comment number 915.

    Since England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have separate education systems why are they not being listed separately? How can any useful information be gleaned when four separate education sytems are listed as one? Beyond that England has a state education system, and academy and a public school learning system. How can we tell how each part does when they are listed as one like this?

  • rate this

    Comment number 914.

    Silly league tables and anxieties about energy, food, education, economy, war . . all designed to support the economic system in one way or another.

    'Educated' people run the country and the banks and work in the media.

  • rate this

    Comment number 913.

    With lots of people saying how terrible the youth are at everything and how exams are so easy ieould like to say:

    Some of work very hard at school and try to get good grades

    And have you tried sitting the current exams? They aren't easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 912.

    Is Pearson a British company? How about being partial?? lol When i moved here I was shocked by the extremely low level of general knowledge within the average British population... there is cognitive dissonance somewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 911.

    I have taught in Poland.
    It seems that children there have a lust to learn which is lacking in the "just-get-by" attitude of most British youngsters.

    This desire to learn is the biggest gift parents can give their children.

    Teachers cannot be expected to enthuse the terminally apathetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 910.

    I think the real question is how do we define education ,do we want children to just remember facts and dates or do we want them to be able to think ,reason and use common sense . As well as to be creative and be foster Inteligence to Question and look for situlations to those questions. We also need a education system that is balanced and equal for all not just the rich

  • rate this

    Comment number 909.

    It is good to see that the UK education model is so succesful. What mystifies me is why politicians are always talking down the UK education system and hanker after the US model. IT just shows that UK MPs dont have the confidence in any thing British and want to adopt the US life style.Maybe we will get some respite from the political clap trap.

  • rate this

    Comment number 908.

    My eldest was due to start reception in September in the UK. I whisked him away to the USA just in time. According to this table I have made the wrong decision.

    However, this table is meaningless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 907.

    If our education is so good - - why is there such a lack of common sense?

    flood plain usage comes to mind

  • rate this

    Comment number 906.

    One of the best educated dole queues in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 905.

    896. "were" they lying to us, surely? Standards must have improved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 904.

    The Economist Intelligence Unit is a very respected and independent organisation and any suggestion that there is an influence from Pearson educational book publishing business is rubbish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 903.

    Did this study consider the culture of tutoring, which is very prevalent in many Asian countries? In Finland, tutoring is virtually non-existent, at least comparatively. How can one compare the educational systems if some are, in effect, going to two schools to obtain comparable results? "Tutor kings and queens" story on BBC, and Dang & Rogers 2008 study shed some interesting light on the topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 902.

    899. Anglerfish
    893 mathsman

    You can lead a horse to water but not make it drink

  • rate this

    Comment number 901.

    If we'd been bottom folks would say 'told you so, we're rubbish!' As it is, we have the second best European school system so people say 'the table's meaningless, the stats are flawed, we're rubbish!'

    I gotta chuckle. :)


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