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Copyright © 2006, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
International league tables not so simple
Comparisons with other countries are often used to support claims that the UK education and training system is failing. International league tables suggest, for example, that the UK has one of the worst records for young people staying on in education after the age of 17 and an equally poor record in qualifications gained by school leavers. But this apparently gloomy picture is misleading and much more caution is needed in drawing conclusions from studies of other countries, says the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA). In a new research report, commissioned by the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), the LSDA set out to judge whether the aspiration that young people should have the knowledge and skills matching the “best in the world” by 2010 is realistic and achievable.
The report, which focuses mainly on England, is based on an analysis of international data on education performance at post-16 carried out on behalf of LSDA by Frontier Economics. The countries selected were judged to be leaders in economic performance. The findings show that it is difficult to make bold comparisons about the performance of different countries from simple indicators of education participation and achievement. For example, Germany has a larger proportion of the population (covering all ages) who have vocational qualifications than the UK. But when we look specifically at young people aged 19-21, the UK has a higher proportion of that age group gaining qualifications, both academic and vocational, than either Germany or the USA. Other comparisons show England or the UK lagging behind on certain indicators but not on others.
The rating of both England and the UK in the proportion of the population gaining qualifications relative to other countries varies according to age group and level of qualification. Conclusions suggest that;
No single country ranks as “best in the world” on all indicators.
At Level 3 (A level or the equivalent), England lags behind Australia and Denmark for participation in education or training among 15-24 year olds, but ahead of the USA. At Level 1 (below GCSE level), however, England does better than Australia, Denmark and the USA in the proportion of adults participating.
At Level 3, England ranks 3rd out of five for attainment of qualifications for both 15-24 year olds and “all adults” (adults of working age).
At Level 2 (equivalent to 5 GCSEs at grades A*-C) the UK does better than Germany or the USA for attainment of qualifications at ages 19-21, but not as well as France or Singapore. But at ages 25-28 the UK lags behind Germany and the USA, possibly because the study periods are longer than in the UK.
The UK has the highest growth rate (when compared to France, Germany, the USA and Singapore) in achievement of qualifications at Level 2 and above.
Mick Fletcher, LSDA research manager, comments: “Making judgements about which nation is ‘best in the world’ in education masks a very complex picture. The data suggests no country is top of the league in everything. While England or the UK may lag behind in certain areas, we are ahead in others. The aspiration to produce a world class system makes a lot of sense as a broad goal, but should not be turned into a precise target.”
Can We Compare Post-16 Performance with the “Best in the World”: An Empirical Assessment is available from: Information Services, LSDA, Regent Arcade House,
19-25 Argyll Street, London W1F 7LS. Tel: 0207 297 9123. Email: enquiries@LSDA.org.uk