Does any country get ten out of ten?

Education - Britain could learn a few lessons by watching what works abroad. By <strong>Andrew Steph

America - by Andrew Stephen

Not long ago an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor caught my eye. "If you have a college degree, there's no guarantee you can follow this editorial," it said. "That's because the number of graduates proficient in English fell from 40 per cent in 1992 to 31 per cent in 2003." US government statistics, it went on, showed that prose literacy - "the kind that allows someone to understand editorials such as this one" - had decreased markedly among American adults at every educational level during these years, but particularly among postgraduates. Six paragraphs down, however, the Monitor reassured readers that despite all this "the US system of higher education is the best in the world". And no, the contradiction is not explained, as some would have you believe, by influxes of non-English-speaking migrants.

Let us look at the figures. The US, I soon established from OECD figures, spends $11,152 annually per pupil on education. This is second only to Switzerland, and compares well with the mean among 30 industrialised nations of $7,743. But are Americans getting value for their money? The US currently stands ninth among these industrialised nations in the number of 25- to 34-year-olds who graduated from high school; and seventh, equal with Belgium, in the league tables of those with college degrees. Only two decades ago the US ranked first in both categories. Even Ray Simon, the Bush administration's deputy secretary of education, admits the obvious: "We're not just letting down too many of our students," he says. "We're not giving our taxpayers the best return on their investments."

But it gets worse. American 15-year-olds tied for 21st place with Poland, Hungary and Spain when it came to maths (Fin-land, Korea and the Netherlands were the best); in "problem solving", they tied for 23rd place with Spain, Portugal and Italy, ahead only of Greece, Turkey and Mexico. Even if Americans choose to discount the OECD figures - the organisation is based in Paris, after all - a separate international study found that US eighth-graders were gaining slightly on their worldwide peers in maths and science, but fourth-graders were slipping even further behind.

Even the Reagan administration foresaw all this when it warned that "a rising tide of mediocrity [in US education] threatens our very future as a nation". Six years later, Bush the Elder announced new goals, to eliminate illiteracy and to vault American kids to the world's number one spot in maths and science. Naturally, nothing of the sort happened. Things stagnated, in this as in just about every other sphere - lest we forget - with Bill Clinton. Then George W Bush came on the scene with what he called a "No Child Left Behind" policy - which, if it was to be taken seriously, ranked in ambition somewhere between JFK's race to the moon and LBJ's war on poverty. Predictably, the resulting 2002 act was neither properly thought-out nor funded. And so the country was back to square one.

Congress is now pondering whether the $80bn given to colleges is well spent, while a 19-member commission appointed by the administration is likely to recommend later this year that state colleges be held more accountable for the ways they spend their money. ("No College Student Left Behind", perhaps?) In his latest proposed budget, Bush has earmarked $136bn over the next decade to boost research and education - a drop in the bucket, alas, compared with what is truly needed.

It is certainly arguable that at the very top levels, the US does offer excellent higher education that can compete with the best in the world. Massachusetts Institute of Tech-nology, for example, has few peers. And, in American folklore, the strength of the US economy repels all criticisms about cultural or educational standards: if we're the strongest and toughest kid on the block, who cares whether we can do wimpy things like read books and do sums?

Those of us who made it to the end of the Monitor editorial were clearly meant to feel pleased with ourselves: "If you've read this far, and formed your own opinion on this issue, congratulations. The education system worked for you." But not, in my case, the American one.

France - by Adam Sage

The French state education system dates from 1882, when the minister for public instruction, Jules Ferry, sought to wrest "les enfants de la patrie" from the Catholic Church. Free, secular schools soon became the bedrock of the French identity - egalitarian, efficient and offering an excellent education to all. And that is the problem. So important is "l'edu-cation nationale" to France's self-image that it has become almost untouchable. Ministers who tinker with it are accused of undermining the core values of the republic, those values that make France different from an Anglo-Saxon world viewed as individualistic and opportunistic.

Consider the fate of the only two education ministers who have made a determined effort to modernise French schools during the past decade, Claude Allegre from the centre left and Luc Ferry from the centre right. Both proposed changes on a far smaller scale than those championed by Tony Blair - a timid move towards decentralisation and a modest reduction in bureaucracy. Yet both were swept away on a tide of protest.

The only major reform to have been implemented since the 1980s was the 2004 law that moved in the opposite direction, reinforcing the secular tradition with a ban on religious symbols, notably Muslim headscarves. Approved by all the main political parties, teaching unions and a clear majority of the population, the legislation is considered a success. But French education needs more than girls with bare heads; it needs reform of the kind that has been systematically rejected. Jules Ferry's schools may have been a remarkable success for the best part of a century, but they have stumbled over the past 20 or so years. French pupils are slipping down international league tables: one study suggested they knew less on entering secondary school than their counterparts from any other EU country apart from Greece.

Parents have come to a similar conclusion and demand is growing for private education, where fees are relatively low (E1,200 a year at most) as a result of a "contract" under which the state pays for teachers' salaries and buildings. In 1990, 35 per cent of families sent at least one child to "le prive", which is generally religion-based; now the figure is 49 per cent. In opinion polls, parents say they have lost faith in state schools, tarnished by ill-discipline and violence. Their criticism underscores the biggest challenge facing French schools - to repair "l'ascenseur social" (the social lift) that once raised children from poor backgrounds up through society.

Today, these children have less chance of obtaining a baccalaureat than their middle-class counterparts, or of earning a place at an elite "grande ecole", where 63 per cent of the students come from well-heeled families. It would be wrong to suggest that state education is alone responsible for the gulf that separates France's violent, drug-ridden suburbs from its affluent city centres. But it is no longer providing a bridge between the two. When rioting engulfed French council estates in November, schools were among the targets for youths who said they represented the inequalities of modern France - a damning verdict in a country that used to pride itself on the "egalite" they promoted.

Germany - by David Crossland

Germans were shocked to learn in 2001 that the nation's 15-year-olds were near the bottom of OECD tables in reading, maths and science. Not only were they outclassed by pupils in Britain, but the link between a child's social background and his or her aca-demic success was found to be greater in Germany than in most of the other countries measured. The system of dividing groups of children into streams at ten or 11 appears to be failing the children of immigrants, whose performance pulled down the average scores. In a controversial move, politicians have encouraged schools with high percentages of immigrant pupils to follow the example of a Berlin school that has ordered all children to speak only German on its premises.

The government has promised to plough more funds into the system, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, like her predecessor, has pledged to boost funding for pre-school education to help working parents. But an obstacle to fundamental reform is that education policy is largely the preserve of the 16 federal states, or Lander. Standards vary from region to region, with conservative, Catholic Bavaria regularly outperforming the Protestant north. German governments have experimented with comprehensive schools since the 1970s, but they haven't been deemed a success and remain in the minority.

One main weakness, it is argued, is that children spend just four years at primary school - from age six to ten - before they are sent off to one of three types of secondary school, depending on their performance: Gymnasium for the high achievers, Realschule for the medium performers and Hauptschule for the bottom tier. Defenders of the system argue that late developers can progress to a Gymnasium and do their three-year Abitur (a slightly more arduous equivalent of A-levels that qualifies them for university) from age 16 or 17. The charge of inequality is further weakened by the simple fact that even the best German schools are free. The system is almost entirely state-financed. Fee- paying public schools like Britain's are virtually unheard of. Those that exist cater for rich kids with learning difficulties.

German children don't tend to identify with their schools. There are no uniforms, no prefects, no house rivalries. Kids are more likely to join local sports clubs than school teams. Later in life, Germans don't ask each other what school they went to in order to determine their social standing. It's irrelevant.

Experts say the system relies too heavily on parent involvement and that there's not enough state support for pre-school education. But many commentators counter that, despite the shocking statistics, the system doesn't need significant reform.

Finland - by John Bangs

Finland is becoming increasingly known for the success of its comprehensive system. In an OECD study of 2001 the country came top in reading and literacy, third in science and fourth in mathematics; large-scale underachievement did not exist. And that was no flash in the pan: a 2003 study showed the same results. So how does Finland do it?

The ethos of equity is ingrained in the Finnish education system, which targets the effects of socio-economic disadvantage. It is not selective, diverse or based on choice. Schools and teachers co-operate in clusters. A flexible framework curriculum focuses on the use and application of knowledge. Students with problems are taught in small groups. Teachers have to be highly trained (a Master's degree is a requirement for all), and teacher training balances theory and practice.

There are no high-stakes tests, external inspections or performance tables. Teachers assess pupils and schools evaluate themselves. Pupils use well-resourced community libraries, and each and every one is provided with free hot meals and health services, alongside social, psychological and tutoring support.

Finland's funding for education is topped only by Japan's, yet this money is not thrown at problems. OECD data shows that while high levels of funding are very important, its effective use is equally so.

Even more clear is that the overall variation in performance between schools is greater in countries with different types, where social segregation is also greater. The UK has a significant percentage of underachievers. The Prime Minister's own education exemplar is Sweden, a country which, by its own admission, operates a choice system that has led to social segregation.

The obvious lesson from Finland is that a comprehensive system focused on equity and on what works in the classroom is far better than a diverse system made up of self-governing trust, foundation and faith schools, and shaped by quasi-selection.

Perhaps it is Tony Blair's attachment to privatisation that has led his government to ignore Finland.

Education abroad in numbers

115,000,000: number of primary-school-age children across the world who are out of school (18 per cent) . . . 2015: the year by which Unesco wants to achieve education for all . . . 785,000,000: estimated number of illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds of whom are women . . . 34: percentage of the world's illiterate adults who live in India . . . 12.8: the lowest adult literacy rate in the world - in Burkina Faso . . . 9: percentage of GDP that Cuba spent on education in 2001-2002 . . . 8.5: percentage of GDP Denmark spent on education in 2001-2002 41: number of pupils per teacher at primary level in India (2002-2003) . . . 11: number of pupils per teacher in Cuba (2002-2003) . . . 93: percentage of adult Venezuelans who are literate . . . 1968: the year San Francisco State University became the first four-year college with a black studies department . . . 100: percentage of pre-primary teachers in Armenia who are female