Global school rankings: where are students happiest?

The UK is ranked below the top 20 in terms of science, maths, reading and - crucially - happiness at school.

There has been much concern today about the UK’s poor ranking in the OECD’s Pisa tables, which measure fifteen-year-olds’ performance in science, maths and reading. The UK has failed to make it into the top 20 for any of these three subjects. South-Asian countries including Singapore, South Korea, Japan and several cities and administrative regions of China (including Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau, which are all ranked separately) dominate the tables, and the UK is outranked by poorer European counterparts, including Poland and Estonia.

The Pisa report reveals several failings in the UK’s school system: not only are we failing to provide young people with the educational tools they need to compete economically in an increasingly global labour market, but we’re also falling behind other countries because poorer students in the UK fare less well at school than their wealthier counterparts. On top of this, we’re not spending money efficiently on education: we spend more than the OECD average on education, but this isn’t translating into top results.

We’re also – and this point will grab fewer headlines – not making sufficiently sure that children are happy in school. The UK ranked 32nd according to the percentage of children who report feeling happy at school – which is lower than it ranked for maths, for instance. We might look enviously at the performance of South Korean students, who ranked 5th for maths and reading and 7th for science, but school children in South Korea are also the unhappiest: fewer than 60 per cent report being happy at school. Is that an education system we want to emulate?

Meanwhile, Indonesia and Peru, some of the lowest ranked countries in terms of educational performance, rank 1st and 3rd for happiness (with Albania squeezing in at number 2.) Evidently there is a balance to be struck: raising happy children who don’t have the educational tools to thrive in later life isn’t ideal either.

The problem with the Pisa league table is that when it ranks countries internationally, it separates educational attainment and happiness in school – but governments should aim to create the conditions for both. A more helpful way of comparing different educational systems could incorporate both student well-being and achievement, providing additional discouragement for results-obsessed politicians wanting to turn students into exam machines. South Korea would fall down the ranks, Indonesia and Peru would be slightly boosted and, sadly, the UK would still languish below the top 20.

Students in China. Photo: Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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