The Nordic countries have notched up another success. Their schools are among the best at upper-secondary level, building on a strong performance in international literacy league tables at age 15.
"This suggests that strengths of earlier parts of the school system in terms of quality and equity between schools are carried through into upper-secondary education," according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Its survey, published this week, looks at how well schools in richer countries meet the needs of 16 to 19-year-olds.
The new OECD survey includes only a third of the countries that took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which ranked 45 countries according to literacy attainment at age 15. England and Scotland were excluded because they did not meet the sampling requirements.
However, the findings provide significant pointers to how schools build on attainment post-15, crucial for preparing young people for work.
Scandinavia and Korea follow a strong and equitable Pisa performance with good upper-secondary schools. However, Ireland's good Pisa performance does not carry through to a well-functioning upper-secondary sector, as defined by the OECD report. Ireland has problems in hiring teachers and helping their professional development.
The OECD report uses 10 benchmarks to measure the quality of upper-secondary schooling. These include admissions policies, attainment, guidance and feedback for students, staff resources, and teacher shortages.
Also used as benchmarks were computer resources, teachers' IT proficiency and professional development, particularly with regard to IT.
While computers feature strongly in the benchmarks, Michael Davidson of the OECD's education department said there would not be much difference in results with a different combination of indicators.
Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden had stronger upper-secondary schools overall, scoring above average on seven or eight of the 10 indicators and ranking top three on almost half the indicators. Their greatest strengths are in availability and use of computers and the professional development of teachers.
Korea, the only East Asian country surveyed, comes next, scoring among the top three countries for at least four indicators.
Other countries have strong and weak points. France and Italy invest highly in staff resources and Italy has fewer staff shortages in key subjects.
However, fewer French and Italian teachers receive in-service training than any other country except Hungary, and they also have fewer computers.
Switzerland, with a selective education system, has a high-quality upper-secondary system, while Spain, with highly inclusive secondary admissions, cannot guarantee a high-quality experience post-15. "This reinforces the message that more equal and inclusive systems may help promote equity but are not guaranteed to create well-functioning upper-secondary systems," the report says.
The countries taking part were: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.
OECD: Completing the Foundation for Lifelong Learning - An OECD Survey of Upper Secondary Schools (February 2004)