Which education system is really the best?

  • Which education system is really the best?

“But which is the best education system?” I often get asked this question, because I’ve spent the last two years visiting six of the top contenders. I’d been teaching for three years in a comprehensive school in London, and I’d grown fed up of the accountability culture that had us sticking up pictures of the kids on the C/D borderline on the staffroom wall. I was upset by how many good teachers I saw leaving the profession because “this is not what I came into teaching for”. And I’d become curious as to how the government thought this approach of ‘improve or else’ could possibly be effective. It’s what they do in ‘top-performing’ systems apparently.

Like hell it is. I’ve been to Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and Shanghai – six of the highest scoring countries in the PISA 2009 tests of reading, maths and science – and none of these countries threaten their schools like we do. I went to these places to observe, teach, and talk to teachers, because I knew there must be a better way to run an education system. And I wanted to see what it looked like in practice to be a student in Japan or a teacher in Finland, rather than just reading about these countries’ policies in books and reports. But I realise I’ve still not told you which is the best one.

Finnish line

As a teacher, I would most like to work in Finland. I was having a chat with a couple of Finnish teachers on the train home, at 2pm (you heard it right). Arto, sophisticated in a brown corduroy jacket and a flat cap, told me, “I think the reason that Finland does so well in education is that teachers are trusted as professionals to do what we think is best for the children”. They certainly are trusted. Teachers in Finland don’t have any observations or inspections, and are responsible for all student assessment – there are no universal standardised exams. Finland gets away with this because they are highly selective about who can be a teacher in the first place, and candidates all undergo intensive teacher training to Masters level before they become fully fledged teachers, responsible for classes. This appeals to me hugely – being highly trained, and then being left to get on with my job to the best of my ability, seeking help from colleagues where necessary. It appeals hugely to the Finns too, which is why teaching is such a popular profession.

I’d also say that Finland is the best system for kids that struggle with academics. The Finnish education system is based on equality, and setting students by ability is illegal. All students aim for the same high goals, based on the national curriculum, and when some inevitably find this harder than others, there are trained teachers (with extra qualifications in special needs) who work with them in class, and sometimes take them out in small groups.

If I was a parent of one of these kids, I’d love it. But I’m not a mum yet. I don’t know which way the genetic cookie will crumble and whether my kids will be in need of extra support or extra stretching. If it was the latter, I might be less pleased with the Finnish approach. As one teacher put it, “The smart kids will be fine, they’ll teach themselves from the textbook”.

Oh, Canada

In this imaginary world where I have academic kids and a choice of passports, I’d take them out of Finnish school and move them to Canada. There, students are still taught in mixed ability groups to the age of 14 or 15 (depending on the subject), but high ability students are taken out of class for small group teaching. In one primary school I visited, this small group spanned several year groups, and students were presenting their personal research on a chosen famous Canadian to each other.

Earlier in the term, they’d been discussing research methods and reliable sources. At high school, they have a top set (an honours class) but otherwise mixed ability. Veteran chemistry teacher Janet explained to me when I was visiting her heavily decorated lab: “We stream up rather than down.

We think a rising tide lifts all boats, but if you stream down, you have students who think they’re thick and get demotivated. Some people think that even this is bad for the other kids who aren’t in the top stream, but we find that those kids that were previously too scared or slow to put up their hands now get more involved.” I imagine it also appeases a certain type of parent that might send their kids to private school otherwise.

Rich pickings

Politicians are often parents, but that is not their sole motivation when reforming education systems. And if I were George Osbourne, I’d probably think the best education system was Singapore. Singapore is a fascinating country – in 1965 when it became independent, it was a swampy island with few resources and a patchy education system. Fifty years later, it is a rich nation with the highest national score in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in the world. It did this by creating a very efficient education system, where students’ talents are ‘identified’ at a young age, and where children then have different educational programmes to prepare them for different futures.

There is an extremely important test at age 12, called the Primary School Leaving Exam (PSLE), on the basis of which students are put into different schools and different streams, focusing on academics or technical education. This is economically efficient for three reasons. There is no need to put lots of educational resources towards getting less academic students up to the high levels of the other students. There is so much riding on the PSLE that parents put their own resources into the education of their children by paying for private tuition (some even take a year off work to coach). And the vocational training is carefully designed to prepare students for the jobs required by the Singaporean economy, so the country has the workforce it needs. This streaming into different schools does have an impact on equality though, as some parents can afford to give their children more help than others, meaning that parental background has a significant impact on how well children do and which get the opportunity to go to university.

So which is the best education system in the world? It depends on who’s asking. As a country we need to have a debate (and crucially, come to some consensus) on what we want the outcomes of education to be, rather than accepting political rhetoric that the purpose of the education system is to make us more economically competitive. We don’t need to copy other countries that beat us in international tests, but once we’ve decided what it is we’re aiming for, and what we’re willing to compromise on, we can learn intelligently from these other countries and the way they design their systems. With our implementation of high stakes accountability policies that are not supported by the international evidence, we are not doing this yet. I live in hope.


Lucy Crehan has spent the last two years learning about education in ‘top performing’ systems. She is currently writing a book about her findings, which you can pre-order at http://www.unbound.co.uk/books/Cleverlands/, and in doing so, help her get it published. She would be very grateful!