Is the UK quite good at education after all?

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The latest international education league table shows the UK putting in a very creditable appearance in sixth place overall and second best in Europe.

It's only one place behind Finland, which has long been held up as one of the great powerhouses of education and a model for others to admire.

But hold on, wasn't it only a few months ago that the UK was being accused of "stagnating" in its efforts to keep up with international competition?

The Pisa tests showed the UK as a middle-ranking education performer, overtaken by high-achieving systems in Chinese cities such as Shanghai and ambitious, hungry improvers such as Poland and Vietnam.

The unimpressive performance was seen as proof of the need for radical improvement.

So how has this latest study shown the UK in such a positive light, ahead of countries such as the US, Germany, France and Sweden?

Measuring stick

It all depends on what you measure.

This latest league table, published by Pearson and compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, is based on a basket of test results and education data.

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Image caption Parents in South Korea light candles for their children's exam success

It includes university-level information as well as school-level tests - and to get really specific, it measures entry to a type of academic university path which is likely to boost the UK's position rather than some other countries.

There are shorter, vocational higher education courses which are more popular in some other countries, which are not included in these rankings.

In contrast, the OECD's Pisa rankings are based on specific tests taken by 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science, with pupils in more than 60 countries answering the same questions.

So which is a more accurate reflection? Pisa has more international status - but the Pearson rankings use a wider range of indicators.

Head teachers have seized upon the apparent gap.

After being bashed over the head with the mediocre Pisa results, they are now hailing this latest league table as evidence of a "winning formula".

Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers says that the previous mood music had been so negative "you could be forgiven for thinking that our education system compares unfavourably with others".

These questions are not going to go away, because international comparisons are going to become more and more significant.

In a quietly important move last month, it was revealed that England's exam system is going to be benchmarked against international standards.

What do you measure?

But it gets back to the question of how a successful education system should be measured.

There is always a temptation to make comparisons on the things that are most easily measured. Maths, for instance. It's relatively straightforward to see who is better at a set of maths questions.

The Pisa tests measure reading, but not writing. It's much harder to measure the handling of ideas rather than numbers. How would you compare written analytical skills across so many different cultures and languages? How would you compare creativity or innovation?

South Korea, which tops this latest league table, expects pupils to memorise 60 to 100 pages of facts, says the accompanying report. How does that compare with an intelligent use of Google?

Or how do you measure the sense of well-being? Are long hours of tuition after school an acceptable price for academic success?

Andreas Schleicher, the architect of the Pisa tests - which have really driven this global conversation on education standards - has always argued that the value of international tests is to show what is possible.

It's not about a top 10 chart show, it's about puncturing complacency.

If disadvantaged children in one country can get very high results - then why should anyone assume that they should fail in another country?

But such international tests also provide a time-lapse image of a changing economic landscape.

At the end of the Second World War, about four out of five Koreans were illiterate. Today anyone reading this on a Samsung smartphone can see they are the best educated in the world.

Who is going to be next?