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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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.