UK rated 10th best in world for teaching '21st-century skills'

Researchers behind rankings urge countries to drop 'rigid, exam-based approach' and focus on 'inculcating 21st-century skills'

Will Hazell

Yidan 21st century skills

The UK is the tenth best country in the world for equipping its youth with "21st-century skills", according to a new international league table.

The Worldwide Educating for Future Index, which rates 50 countries on how well they are equipping young people between the ages of 15 and 24 with "future skills", ranked Finland as the top nation overall.

As well as finishing in the top 10, the UK was judged to have the third-best teaching environment.

The index was produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit on behalf of the Yidan Prize Foundation, and is now in its second year.

It differs from other international league tables because, rather than rating countries on "outputs" in the form of test results, it judges them on "inputs" – namely, whether a nation's policy, teaching and socioeconomic environment is conducive to teaching "future-oriented skills".

The index defines these as "entrepreneurship; leadership; digital skills; communication; global awareness and civic education; and creativity". 

Last year, the UK came seventh out of 35 nations, but this year it dropped to tenth out of 50 – although changes to the methodology used means the two tables are not directly comparable. 

The UK performed particularly strongly on its teaching environment, which was rated the third best in the world for equipping students with future skills, behind only the Netherlands and Canada.

Trisha Suresh, a senior consultant at the Economist Intelligence Unit who compiled the table, said the country had "room for improvement, but really the UK does well".

"While policies on future skills are available, we found that in the UK some implementation metrics are not as clear. The future skills strategy is not as comprehensive based on the skills that we have defined".

On the teaching environment, she pointed to the UK's "consistent national standards" and "career resources in schools and colleges".

The top three countries overall were Finland, followed by Switzerland then New Zealand.

East Asian countries, which traditionally dominate the upper echelons of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) table, sit further down the WEFFI index.

While Singapore came in the top 10 (seventh), Japan was ranked 12, Hong Kong 15, South Korea 16, Taiwan 17 and China 39.

Ms Suresh told Tes: “Competency in maths or science, you can get there quite easily when you just do rote-learning, right? Study really hard, memorise everything and you can score fairly well.

"But that problem-solving mindset – and the abilities and skill sets – are challenging firstly to implement, and then to scale. The rankings look quite different between the WEFFI and Pisa, just because they require different skillsets.

“Thriving in tomorrow’s challenging world you need to be a bit more nimble and agile to problem solve, more than reading a textbook and regurgitating."

A report produced alongside the index recommends that countries should drop "rigid approaches" to teaching, because these "do not suit future-skills learning".

"Policymakers around the world, and in East Asia in particular, are realising that the rigid, exam-based approach to learning has been taking a toll on students, their families and wider society," the report says.

"Emphasis is shifting in some education systems towards other measures of attainment and inculcating 21st-century skills is now part of that strategy."

Ms Suresh said that certain countries, such as the US (ranked 18) "punch below their weight", while some small, poorer countries such as Ghana (ranked 25) "punch above their weight".

The Worldwide Education for the Future Index 2018 top 10:

1. Finland

2. Switzerland

3. New Zealand

4. Sweden

5. Canada

6. Netherlands

7. Germany

7. Singapore

9. France

10. UK

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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