Anne Corbett on a report that compares education systems in 28 countries
In a highly selective interpretation of comparisons of education systems round the world, the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard claimed last week that a report by the OECD (Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development) shows that the British Government is investing more in education "than our main competitors such as Germany and Japan".
This, she said, was "evidence of the Government's commitment to education. We are investing in our future and at the same time ensuring that the taxpayers' money is well spent." But the report as a whole does not bear out Mrs Shephard's enthusiastic reading.
The third edition of the OECD's educational indicators - Education at a Glance - gives figures for the share of public expenditure that education receives in 28 countries. As Mrs Shephard says, the UK spends 4 per cent of its gross domestic product on public sector primary and secondary education, compared with an average 3.4 per cent in other developed countries.
But when all levels of state-funded education are combined, the UK spending is shown to be well below average. Only Germany, Japan and the Netherlands spend less. Britain also spends less on nursery education than any of the countries that provided figures, with the exception of Ireland.
Averaged out over the OECD, the average for all levels (nursery to tertiary) combined is 4.9 per cent. At the top of the league table are Finland, Canada and Hungary which allocate between 7.2 and 7.3 per cent of their GDP to public sector education. Germany and Japan spend only 3.6 and 3.7 per cent respectively, the Netherlands a mere 1.7 per cent. The UK spends 4.1 per cent.
The variations not only reveal differences in spending levels, they also reflect differences among countries in how responsibility for financing education is divided between the public and private sectors. The Netherlands figure is so low because the Dutch system, based on religious affiliation, is essentially classified as private.
The variations also reflect different spending priorities and commitments. If the German figure appears low, this is in part because, like Austria, France, and Sweden, its spending is high on other public sector fronts such as social security and national health care.
At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference last week, the Labour party education spokesman, David Blunkett, also discovered that the OECD statistics made useful ammunition for a game of political ping pong: "The report from the OECD," he said, "highlights the weakness of British nursery education compared with other developed nations ... Britain is lagging behind at the bottom of the class . . . the present turmoil in the classroom will do nothing to improve Britain's position in the international league table. "
Mrs Shephard commented favourably on a section in the report which examines public attitudes to education. She suggests that public satisfaction with the amount of information about education available is a vindication of Government policy on league tables. These are seen as important issues everywhere, but public confidence in the system in the UK lags behind OECD averages.
The countries studied include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the UK and the United States, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Russia.