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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.