Another international league table – how did UK education fare?

Janet Downs's picture
The UK’s low position for educational well-being, 24th out of 29 developed* countries, was caused by the large number of 16-19 year-olds not in education, UNICEF found. The low ranking was not caused by weak performance in PISA** tests.

Preschool enrolment rates (% of children aged between 4 years and the start of compulsory education who are enrolled in preschool) in the UK is high – over 95%. Paradoxically, Finland, the country with one of the highest educational well-being scores (4th out of 29), had the lowest enrolment rate. UNICEF explained this was because compulsory schooling did not start until age 7. If the data had been for the last full year before compulsory schooling, then Finland’s rate of pre-school enrolment would have been nearly 100%.

The UK is at the bottom of the table for participation in “further education” (defined as education for 15–19 year-olds). UK was the only country where the participation rate for this age group fell below 75%. UNICEF said that this “may be the result of an emphasis on academic qualifications combined with a diverse system of vocational qualifications which have not yet succeeded in achieving ‘parity of esteem’ or an established value in employment markets.”

The participation rate in the UK is likely to rise when the participation age is raised to 18 and all 16-19 year-olds are expected to be in education or training. However, Education Secretary Michel Gove has removed the duty on employers to let local authorities know they are employing under-18s. Some young people could slip through the net. These are likely to be those in low-paid, unskilled work. And the recent inclusion of 3 “facilitating” A levels in school performance tables is unlikely to persuade schools to offer vocational courses which would appeal to non-academic pupils. Participation rates in the US are also among the lowest (25th out of 29). Just over 80% of US 15-19 year-olds are in education.

Although UNICEF didn’t make this point, the higher participation rates in many other countries are likely to be because pupils take their major exams at 18. Pupils in such systems leaving education before this age will not graduate. Instead of reforming the exam system at 16, the Government should be setting its sight on a comprehensive exam system which comprises a range of exams, academic and vocational, at 18. High-stakes tests at 16 are becoming rare in other countries.

The third indicator for education is the NEET rate which measures those young people not in education, employment or training. Again, the UK scored poorly on this indicator being 25th out of 29 countries. 9% of UK 15-19 are NEETs. In the US, which is 24th in the table, 7% of this age group are not in work, education or training.

The fourth and final indicator is educational achievement at 15. This is measured by an average score in the PISA tests for maths, reading and science. UK was 11th out of 29 (US was 16th and Sweden, another of the countries whose system is admired by Gove, was 18th). Finland was an outlier, significantly outscoring other countries. If Australia, New Zealand and Japan had been included in the tables* they would have been in the top five on this indicator.

*some developed countries such as Australia and New Zealand were not included in the overall ranking because their data was incomplete.

**Programme for International Student Assessment takes place every three years and is administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The last PISA tests for which results are available were in 2009. The 2012 results will be published at the end of 2013.

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