Does the UK have the best education system in the world?

17 July 2019
What was claimed

The UK is the best country for education in 2019.

Our verdict

This is based on data that measures public perception of different educational systems. It is not good data for objectively ranking education systems. Objective measures suggest the UK has a good public education system, but not the world’s best.

Earlier this month, a tweet claiming the UK was the best country for education in 2019 was shared by hundreds of people, including Children and Families minister Nadhim Zahawi and a British ambassador.

The data comes from a survey conducted by media company U.S. News & World Report, consultancy BAV Group, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The results show how different education systems are perceived by a select group of people in 36 different countries. This data shouldn’t be used to measure educational provision or performance in any objective way.

Claiming the UK is the best country for education using this data is misleading. 

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How was the data gathered?

The U.S. News & World Report said:

“Perception data were derived from a survey of more than 20,000 respondents—general population, informed elites and business decision makers—across 36 countries in four regions: the Americas, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Asia. The surveys were conducted online.

“Respondents were asked to share their perceptions of 80 nations in terms of specific country characteristics, or attributes.”

To rank countries by educational score, respondents were asked whether they associated countries with three attributes—whether the country was perceived to have a well-developed public education system, whether it provided top quality education, and whether the respondent would consider attending university there.

So the most we can say about this data is that it shows what some people think to be the best country for education, rather than which country is best in any objective sense. It’s unclear how far you could expect the average survey respondent in 36 different countries to be able to make a meaningful distinction between the merits of  education in—to name but three countries they had to rate—Croatia, Colombia and Costa Rica. It seems unlikely that responses can have been based on anything other than very broad general perceptions.

But even as a measure of perception, the data is not particularly high quality.

Firstly, the data doesn’t represent the views of the world population because people were only surveyed in 36 countries. That means the data excludes the views of people in roughly 160 countries.

Secondly the data isn’t representative of the population within those 36 countries. 

The survey collected responses from a disproportionate number of “informed elites—college educated individuals who consider themselves middle class or higher and who read or watch the news at least four days a week” and “business decision-makers—senior leaders in an organization or small business owners who employ others.”

Also the survey was done online, meaning that even respondents from the “general population” group in each country could only represent the online population of each country.    

So where does the UK place?

There’s no single objective measure of the UK’s entire education system compared to other countries’.

Even when using an objective measure there is still a degree of subjectivity in deciding which elements are important when looking at the overall success of an education system.

That aside, various measures suggest the UK has a good education system, but not the best in the world.

For example, in 2015 the UK ranked above the OECD average in science and reading attainment and around average for maths attainment in the latest round of the PISA tests—an international educational league table produced by the OECD. We’ve written more about the strengths and weaknesses of PISA results here.

PISA tests the performance of 15 year-olds in science, reading, and maths every three years by measuring their “‘functional skills’—their ability to apply knowledge to solve problems in real world situations”.   

The UK’s higher education system ranked third out of 50 countries assessed by researchers from the University of Melbourne. The researchers created the ranking out of a blend of measures including attainment, diversity, spending and employment among graduates.

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