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Proving England top can't be done

It is the clarion call for FE:"By 2010, young people and adults in England will have knowledge and skills matching the best in the world."

But the clarity has been short-lived. New research has cast doubt over whether the Learning and Skills Council's claim could ever be proved.

A study for the Learning and Skills Development Agency concludes that we do not know which country is the best overall for FE. It would take a "large investment" to get comparable data on an annual basis.

The report attempts to compare the English system with other countries in terms of participation, drop-out rates, qualifications and productivity.

But problems with the data mean that only four countries can be properly compared with England: Australia, Canada, Denmark and the USA.

Even then, it is difficult to accurately compare different types of qualifications, the report says. For example, it estimates that half of high school diplomas are equivalent to GCSE, and half to A levels.

There were also gaps: Canada could not provide any information on the numbers in education after the age of 16.

Some of the world's most successful education systems did not have all the data the researchers needed, including Germany, Japan and Finland, acknowledged as the world's best in under-16 education.

In the comparisons that could be made, England came behind Australia and Denmark in terms of participation and of the numbers with level 2 or 3 qualifications. England also trails Canada for level 3 qualifications.

Rob Wye, the LSC's director of strategy, said: "Even if we can't completely measure the difference yet, we know we are behind so we have to take action."

The Department for Education and Skills may be interested in helping to fund accurate international comparisons.

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