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 Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.