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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.

New Statesman
Students in China. Photo: Getty.

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.