The Pisa study (programme for international student assessment), conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years, is best known for the anxiety it causes politicians around the world. Their chief concern is the standing of their school system in what is seen by some as an international league table.
Of course, the Pisa study is much more than that, although it can promote some interesting questions among national policy-makers in education. In Brazil, for instance, every secondary school is being benchmarked against the results.
As well as the headline data, Pisa contains a wealth of other information about schooling. One aspect, highlighted here, is the percentage of students who read for enjoyment. The figures range from more than 92 per cent in Kazakhstan, to less than 56 per cent in Japan. The UK came in below the OECD average at 60 per cent, the same score as Norway and a little above the US.
But how much is the outcome determined by the success of the education system and how much by other factors? It cannot be the length of the winter nights, since students in Finland scored better than those in Norway, and Sweden came somewhere between the two, despite all being roughly on the same latitudes. Perhaps it is to do with relative wealth, since the countries with the highest percentages of students who enjoy reading are often poor agrarian societies. But the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore hardly fit that picture.
Students in both of those nations are exposed to TV and computer games in large numbers, although both have governments which regard education as a high priority and invest heavily in schooling. Their relatively close-knit family structures may also support an enjoyment of reading across generations.
What is clear is that in many countries, lower percentages of males than females read for enjoyment. Whether the development of tablets, e-book readers, and other new technology will inspire the next generation of teenage boys to read for enjoyment may depend on whether authors can produce literature to inspire them.
John Howson is director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education
PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS WHO READ FOR ENJOYMENT
OECD average 63%
Source: Pisa 2009
Sweden 62.7 %
Hong Kong 80.5%