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More pieces in the statistical jigsaw

Data from the world's industrialised countries puts the achievements of the UK's education system in perspective, writes David Budge

Robert Burns's famous plea for honest self-appraisal is not one that most of us are brave enough to endorse.

O wad some pow'r the giftie gie us To see ourselves as others see us!

We tend to prefer the fictions that we create. But just occasionally it can be instructive - even heartening - to take a detached look at ourselves.

The annual publication of the plump statistical volume, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, provides such an opportunity for the UK education service.

It shows how we compare with the 28 other OECD countries on measures such as expenditure on education, youth unemployment, pupil-teacher ratios and access to higher education. And this year the statistical net has been spread to encompass another 12 non-OECD countries.

So how do we look this year in comparison with the rest of the developed world? In surprisingly good fettle, it has to be said. The OECD report reminds us that our children's mathematical performance is mediocre. But we are top of the world rankings in the number of computers per secondary child and have a lower university drop-out rate than virtually any other country.

That is more than the Italians can claim. As the 1998 edition of Education at a Glance points out, their students have an alarmingly poor "survival" rate. The disclosure has enraged the Italians who believe that their university "apples" should not have been compared with the "pears" of other countries which have shorter degree courses.

The OECD statisticians are unapologetic, however. "The Italians may not like the statistics, but they approved them," one official said, shrugging his shoulders.

But the Italian protest at least reminds us that all statistics of this kind have to be read in the company of a dish of salt. Some data is three years old and there are a few frustrating gaps in the tables (estimates of the fiscal and social return on educational investment are provided for some countries - but not the UK).

It is also essential to read the footnotes and understand the context. For example, Korean and Japanese children don't seem to work as hard as the Italians - but that is because the number of hours they spend on homework or in after-school crammers is not given.

Equally, some calculations are surely speculative. It's debatable whether you can really quantify the percentage of decisions on secondary education taken by schools, local authorities or central government.

And avid readers of The TES will know that, unfortunately, the salaries for Russian teachers are even more abject than those quoted (a fortnight ago we reported that some were being "paid" in vodka, saucepans, rugs - and even gravestones).

Nevertheless, these volumes provide some unusual insights (a teacher's starting salary is almost identical to the per capita GDP in many countries). They also provide perhaps the best cost-benefit analysis of national education systems that we have at present.

The statistical jigsaw is still far from complete but the picture is gradually becoming clearer, year by year.

"Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 1998" is available from The Stationery Office, PO Box 276, London SW8 5DT (Tel: 0171-873 9090) Price Pounds 30 (plus Pounds 2.94 pp)

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