The generation born in the UK this year is likely to lose #163;4.5 trillion in economic output over their lifetime because UK schools aren't delivering what other countries' education systems show can be achieved. In other words, deficiencies in the UK's school systems amount to the equivalent of a permanent recession - one that could be avoided.
Two generations ago, South Korea had the same standard of living as Afghanistan today, and it was among the lowest educational performers. Now it is one of the world's top-performing school systems. A major overhaul of Poland's education system helped to dramatically reduce performance variability among schools, turn around the lowest performers and raise overall performance by more than half a school year. Germany was able to significantly reduce the impact of social background on student success. Even those who claim that the relative standing of countries mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that educational improvement is possible: Poland did not change its culture or the composition of its population, nor did it sack its teachers. It changed the way it runs its education system.
Few people would say money is not important to improving outcomes, but it is far from sufficient on its own. The UK is a case in point: expenditure per student has increased by 68 per cent over the past decade and yet Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results have remained flat. More generally, spending per student explains less than a fifth of the performance differences between countries. The image of a world divided neatly into rich, well-educated countries and poor, badly educated countries is out of date. So what can the UK learn from the world's top-performing school systems? Obviously, no nation can copy and paste from another. But international comparisons have revealed that a surprising number of features are shared by the world's most successful school systems.
One thing we have learned from Pisa is that leaders in high-performing systems have convinced their citizens to make choices that value education more than consumption. Another common factor is the belief in the possibilities for all children to achieve. In systems as different as Canada, Finland and Japan, parents and teachers are committed to the idea that all students can achieve high standards and that student performance is unrelated to social background. In the UK, social background has a major impact on student success, and the socio-economic composition of UK schools poses particular challenges for immigrant students. Why does this matter? In the past, when economies only needed a small slice of well-educated people, it was sufficient and efficient for governments to invest large sums in a small elite to lead the country. But the social and economic cost of low educational performance has risen so substantially that all young people now need to leave school with strong foundation skills. Importantly, Pisa has shown clearly that equity does not need to be sacrificed to achieve excellence.
The toxic mix of unemployed graduates on the streets and employers who cannot find workers with the skills they need tells us that more education doesn't automatically translate into better skills, better jobs and better lives. A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last their students a lifetime. Today, schools need to prepare students for more rapid change than ever before; for jobs that have not yet been created, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that we don't yet know about. Schooling now needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making. For a more inclusive world, we also need people who can appreciate and build on different values, beliefs and cultures.
The elevation of teaching
In the 21st century, exams need to reflect the knowledge and skills that matter for the future of students, not just those that parents remember from their own schooling or those that are easy to measure. And 21st-century learning environments need to encourage student engagement; to ensure that learning is collaborative; to be attuned to students' motivations and acutely sensitive to individual differences; and to use assessments that emphasise formative feedback and promote connections across activities and subjects, both in and out of school.
Such learning environments require a very different calibre of teacher. When teaching was about imparting prefabricated knowledge, education could afford low teacher quality. And when teacher quality is low, governments tend to tell their teachers exactly what to do and how to do it. Results from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's Teaching and Learning International Survey show that the notion of schools being innovation-hostile environments that reward neither greater effort nor new ideas is widespread among teachers. But countries as diverse as Finland and Singapore show that it is possible to elevate teaching to a profession of high-level knowledge workers, who work autonomously and contribute to the profession within a collaborative culture. Consequently, the most striking result from Finland is not just its high average performance but that, with only 5 per cent of student performance variation between schools, every school succeeds.
Changing educational administrations along these lines may seem like moving graveyards. But global comparisons show what is possible and help to set meaningful targets in terms of measurable goals achieved by the world's educational leaders. The bottom line is clear: in this rapidly changing world the benchmark is the best-performing education systems internationally, not improvement by national standards. The world is indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving to frailty and ignorant to custom. Success will go to those individuals and nations that are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. The task for UK policymakers is to help its citizens rise to this challenge.
Andreas Schleicher is deputy director for education and special adviser on education policy to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's secretary general.