Finnish teenagers today topped the most rigorous global poll of education standards. Finland, where there are no wholly-private schools, beat the top-ranking schools in Hong-Kong, Japan and Korea in maths and science - but the UK was left out of the study after the government failed to deliver the statistics.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international Paris-based thinktank, published the results of its second tri-annual study of the abilities of 15-year-olds in 41 countries today. Some 250,000 teenagers sat a test of their maths, science and reading skills in 2003, and were also asked about their attitudes to education. The results have been compiled into a 400-page comparative study of education systems known as Pisa - the Programme for International Student Assessment.
In mathematics Hong-Kong tops the table, with Japan and Macao in China also in the top ten, which also features a number of Scandinavian countries, along with Finland at number two. The bottom-ranked country is Brazil, with America coming 33rd, just below Latvia.
In reading, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all feature in the top ten, and Finland is rated best in both reading and science.
Finnish reading skills remained broadly the same as in the 2000 survey, but the country's mathematics and scientific skills have improved since 2000.
Most other countries' relative positions in the 2003 survey remained broadly similar to those in 2000, but some showed notable changes. A 1999 major reform of Poland's education system paid off with big improvements among lower-performing students. Smaller but still noteworthy improvements in at least two assessment areas also occurred in Belgium, the Czech Republic and Germany.
The tops of the tables are dominated by wealthier countries, but some poorer nations also do well. Korea's national income, for example, is 30% below the OECD average but its students are among the best performers in OECD countries.
The UK's figures are not included after the Department for Education and Skills failed to collect enough data to comply with the OECD's stipulations - not enough students and schools took part in the tests to fulfil their quota.
However, an annex to the report suggests that the UK's international standing has slumped. It reveals that the UK has dropped from fourth place to 11th in science, seventh to 11th in reading and eighth in maths to 18th - the DfES said that the data, because it was not complete, was not comparable.
In 2000 the government hailed the results as proof that its education policies were working.
Other findings include:
· Students whose parents have better-paid jobs, are better educated and have more "cultural" possessions in their homes perform on average significantly better in all countries than those without such advantages. · In Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Poland and Sweden, parents can rely on high and consistent standards across schools. By contrast, variations in student performance in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Turkey are largely accounted for by performance differences between schools. · While girls outperform boys in reading in all countries, gender differences in mathematics tend to be small. Most countries have more boys among top performers, resulting in a slight overall advantage for boys over girls in average terms. But boys and girls tend to be equally represented among the low-performers.
· Student interest in mathematics is far lower across countries, than in reading. Among OECD countries, about half of the students report being interested in the things they learn in mathematics, but only 38% report that they do mathematics because they enjoy it.