Unesco, the UN education organisation, has found that Britain is the country closest to meeting the UN's Education For All goals, set out in 2000. The latest available figures show Britain rising dramatically from 17th place to head the table. It ranks above countries such as Finland and Sweden, which are renowned for their effective primary education. The previous top-ranking country, Barbados, has slipped to number 15 in the table. Caribbean schools have the best international rates of pupil enrolment.
David Tuck, of the National Association of Headteachers, said: "This is the sort of thing the Government should be trumpeting. They're perpetually saying that our schools aren't very good, and that our children are being failed. But there's good work being done by staff and pupils."
The Education For All goals include universal primary enrolment, a 50 per cent improvement in adult literacy, and gender equality in education, all by 2015.
Countries in the survey were measured by these criteria, as well as by the percentage of pupils completing five classes at school.
Of the 125 countries surveyed in 2004, the UK had the best primary enrolment rate. Finland came top in adult literacy, Slovenia in gender equality, while the Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago had the best stay-on rate. The Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, lampooned by comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen in his new film, Borat, which portrays its inhabitants as unworldly buffoons, ranks fourth overall in the international table.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Teachers said: "British primary schools have been the envy of the world for many, many years. They're regarded as top-notch, because of the commitment of the teachers, and the atmosphere in schools. Our primaries are about all-round care for the child, in terms of emotional, as well as educational development."
The report also highlights various other elements of British primary education, comparing it to schools in western Europe and north America.
The UK is revealed to have one of the lowest pupil-teacher ratios at primary level, with an average of 18 pupils per teacher. This is outflanked only by France, which has 19 pupils per teacher. In Sweden, every 10 children have a teacher to themselves. In pre-primary education, pupils in Britain are forced to share one teacher among 19 classmates. Only Maltese toddlers fare worse. The report states that the single most important determinant of quality in early years education is: "Interaction between children and staff, with a focus on the needs of the child. This requires reasonable working conditions, such as low childstaff ratios."
Sharon Hogan, head of Canterbury children's centre, in Bradford, said:
"Adult ratio is very, very important. The larger the group of children you're working with, the less likely you are to have in-depth knowledge of each child. That said, you might have a good staffing ratio, but if staff don't understand child development, it won't make any difference."
The NUT agrees that class sizes are significant. The spokeswoman said:
"Yes, class sizes are far too large. But even against that background, British schools are the envy of the world."
And, while British primaries bemoan the lack of male teachers, other countries' schools are shown to have even fewer men on their staff. In Italy, all but five per cent of primary teachers are women. But many countries around the world are still struggling to recruit female pupils into the classroom. Only two-thirds of the countries had achieved gender equality in primary education. Internationally, there are 94 girls in primary for every 100 boys, and teachers' expectations for boys and girls often differ.
But international spending on education has dropped. Danish pupils fare best, with 8.5 per cent of the Danish annual budget spent on education, compared with 5.4 per cent in Britain. But Kazakhs receive particular value for money: their high-ranking schools are funded with only 2.5 per cent of the GNP.
Sue Palmer, literacy consultant, said: "It's amazing what you can do with data, isn't it? Basically, all this says is that we've got more kids in school than anywhere else.
"Primary education should be about the three Rs, but also about socialisation, and developing a love of learning. Those would be a good measure of primary education, but they're immeasurable."
1 United Kingdom 17
2 Slovenia 11
3 Finland 5
4 Kazakhstan 7
5 France 3
6 Belgium 8
7 Norway 2
8 Sweden 15
9 Republic of Korea 6
10 Latvia 30
11 Switzerland 4
12 Czech Republic 34
13 Poland 12
14 Estonia 10
15 Barbados 1
16 Italy 25
17 Israel 41
18 Slovakia 35
19 Hungary 9
20 Greece 26
21 Ireland 18
22 Spain 16
23 Trinidad Tobago 60+
24 Cyprus 13
25 Cuba 22
26 Denmark 19
27 Armenia 14
28 Lithuania 23
29 Kyrgyzstan 28
30 Croatia 20
Education for all ratings (UNESCO, 2006)