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How to get to the top of the world class

Whatever headline-grabbing wheezes might be deployed by education ministers, success comes down to investing in teachers

How to get to the top of the world class

10 good reasons why some countries are far better than others at educating their offspring

How to get to the top of the world class

When it comes to global education rankings, Asian nations take all the top places. Why?

This week Singapore was rated best for maths and science; next week the OECD will publish its PISA test international rankings. The mammoth, three-yearly exercise produces international education rankings for more than 60 countries based on reading, maths and science tests by more than 500,000 15-year-olds.

The BBC has tested what it takes to get into the international education winners’ enclosure. Here’s its recipe for success…

1 Move to east Asia: There is no escaping the relentless geography of education rankings. Singapore is now first followed by the likes of South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Add Taiwan, Macau and Vietnam to this list.

2 I’m only going to say this once… Many of the most successful countries have an expectation that people will do what they’re told. A focused, conformist culture, a sense of collective purpose, or even an old-fashioned one-party state are often features. But there are exceptions – e.g. the Finns.

3 Make sure you don’t have natural resources. “The resources curse” shows economies built on natural wealth – such as sitting on vast oil reserves – tend to underperform in education. How do you motivate someone who expects to be wealthy regardless of how well they achieve in exams?

4 Bet your house on the teachers. The OECD’s education guru Andreas Schleicher: “No education system can be better than the quality of its teachers.” Whatever headline-grabbing wheezes might be deployed by education ministers, it all comes down to investing in teachers.

5 Be a young-ish nation. These might be ancient cultures, but a curious feature of high education achievers is how many are relative newcomers as nation states or have newly-reconstituted boundaries. Does it make them more light-footed about changing and adapting?

6 Get a big, overshadowing neighbour. The European education success stories of recent years – Finland, Poland and Estonia – have emerged from the shadow of the old Soviet bloc. South Korea and Hong Kong are up against mainland China. Education is their way to punch above their weight.

7 It’s not a knockout competition. Education league tables are based on the proportion of young people reaching some benchmark of ability. The winners will be those who assume that everyone should cross that finishing line. Top Asian systems put the best teachers with the weakest pupils to make sure everyone gets to a basic standard.

8 Classroom jackdaws. Education systems are hard to disentangle from the politics and the culture in which they’ve grown. But many of the high-achieving countries have been ruthless in cherry-picking ideas from other countries.

9 Long-term planning in a short-term world. It might take 10 years before changes in an education system make any positive difference in global rankings. That’s not much of an incentive for the fleeting lifespan of ministerial office.

10 Blame everyone else. Education is a supertanker that takes many years to turn around. So ministers can take the credit for anything that succeeds and blame everything else on the previous administration.

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