Top 10 Best Education Systems in the World

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The effectiveness of a country’s education system not only reflects on how well educated people are but also the extent to which graduates are equipped with transferable skills that are valuable to employers. Obviously, every country’s education system has its own strengths and weaknesses, however the success of an education system lies primarily on whether there is a culture that is supportive of learning and the value that is attached to education.

The following is a list of the ‘Top 10 Best Education Systems in the World’ compiled for Pearson by the Economist Intelligence Unit. The rankings derive from international test results and data such as graduation rates between 2006 and 2010. The results point to high global competition, with Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore topping the list of highest performing education systems in the world. On the contrary, there has been a wider downward trend for some Scandinavian countries, while the UK ranks sixth, behind Finland and ahead of other education superpowers such as Germany, France and the US.  

The rankings are as follows:

1. Finland

Finland’s education system is deemed unorthodox in many ways. Finnish children begin school as soon as they turn 7 years-old. Pupils enjoy more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialised nation. What is really remarkable is that the country has succeeded at advancing the individual potential of almost every child. Also, unlike other education systems, pupils rarely take exams or do homework until they are well into their teens.

2. South Korea

South Korea’s education system ranks second in the list, but reports claim that it is highly controversial. Unlike the liberal education system that Finland boasts, Korea’s system is more rigid and highly focused on exams, which means that knowledge is often sacrificed in the name of test preparation. In the past South Korea has had the highest numbers of top achievers. But this entails long hours of study.

Prof JuHo Lee, a former education minister, and now an academic at the KDI think-tank in Seoul, says intensive education may have been right while Korea was growing its economy, but now a new strategy should be adopted. "Test scores may be important in the age of industrialisation, but not anymore. So we look into the ways to reform our education system, not based on test scores, but based on creativity and social and emotional capacities".

3. Hong Kong

Since 1997, when Hong Kong was handed back to China after years of British colonization, the education system of the country has undergone several changes. The new model, introduced at the beginning of the 2009/10 academic year, resembles those found in China and even the USA. The government has made it easier for students to complete a full twelve years’ of education by removing the fees and one series of public exams in senior secondary school. The government has also implemented a series of education support measures to help Non-Chinese Speaking children master the Chinese language and integrate in local community. The country’s education system also put in place extra measures to foster vocational education, training and lifelong learning tailored to the development and manpower needs of Hong Kong.

4. Japan

Before World War II Japan’s education system was following the German and French model, but then Americans reformed it after their own: it consists of six years of elementary school, three years of junior and senior high school and four years of university or two years of college.

A key element of the Japanese school system is entrance exams, which involves high competition among students. In order to pass entrance exams to the best institutions, many students attend special preparation schools (juku) besides regular classes, or for one to two years between high school and university (yobiko).

Interestingly, the school culture and ethics are worth mentioning. Children are encouraged from an early age to maintain cooperative relationships with their peers and follow the set school routines as well as to value punctuality. Unlike schools in the Western world, one of the teachers’ main concerns is the development of the holistic child so they not only teach children math, languages etc. but also other skills such as how to improve their personal hygiene, nutrition, sleep etc.

5. Singapore

Singapore features a strong education system which is recognised around the world. The Singaporean school system has moved to a more flexible and diverse model to help students meet their different interests and encourage them take greater ownership of their learning. This approach in education aims to create all-round personalities with a variety of skills needed for the future. The teaching methodology is uniform across the country and stems from a range of pedagogical traditions, both from the East and the West. Classroom instruction is highly-scripted and as such teachers rely heavily on text books, worksheets and lots of drill and practice. Teachers also highly value pupils’ mastery of specific procedures and the ability to represent problems clearly, especially in mathematics.

6. UK

 The UK has a global reputation for its well-structured and high-quality education system with long-standing traditions of excellence. The world-class degrees which British universities offer justify why millions of overseas students choose the UK for their studies. The UK is also home to one of the world’s  oldest and highly respected systems of higher education with degrees being internationally valued and recognised. Four of the top six universities in the world are UK-based (see 2012 QS World University Rankings). The UK education system is really flexible and allows students to tailor their degrees according to their interests and needs. The teaching and study methodology used in British institutions provide students with the freedom to develop their desired skill sets with confidence and to be creative.

7. Netherlands

The Netherlands boasts a robust education system whose philosophy emphasizes the need to encourage students to be open-minded, and able to think in a creative manner. Like the UK education system, the organisation of education in the Netherlands is also well-structured.

Dutch university consistently rank among the best in the world. The 2012/13 QS World University Rankings include 13 Dutch universities - all within the world’s top 500, and a remarkable 11 in the top 200.

Interestingly, the government immensely invests in fostering entrepreneurial skills so that future employees are able to meet the demands of the labour market. The current government plans to reinforce the relationship among businesses and educational institutions through mutual agreements with one another.

8. New Zealand

The education system in New Zealand recognises different abilities, ideas, religious beliefs and ethnic groups across all levels of education, both public and private. New Zealand education maintains a balance of practical and theoretical learning.

Primary schools put a lot of emphasis on literacy and numeracy and have a broad and balanced curriculum. Secondary schools focus on subject-based learning, offering students the opportunity to specialise as they progress in their learning. At both primary and secondary schools child-focused learning and independent thinking are encouraged. On the other hand, higher education focuses on the individual, and all ideas – even those challenging traditional notions - are welcome. This in turn fosters a climate of healthy, open debate that promotes liberal values.

New Zealand qualifications are internationally reputable and recognized. All New Zealand universities are featured in the 2013/14 QS World Top 500 University Rankings. The country’s universities appear in the World’s top 50 in 18 subjects including Accounting and Finance, Engineering – Civil and Structural, Education, Law and Psychology.

9. Switzerland

Education and knowledge are Switzerland’s most important resources. The country boasts a largely decentralized education system given its multilingual and federally structured character. Most decisions regarding the running of primary and secondary schools are taken at cantonal level.

The Swiss education system is highly permeable. There are many ways to enter or transfer to a training programe or school or to attend a catch up training programme. There is also easy access to various types of education as long as students have the necessary qualifications to attend the course of their choice. However, there are a few restrictions on particular vocational education programmes due to the cap on student numbers for certain vocational areas. Access to medical studies at university is also limited to a certain extent.

10. Canada

Canada ranks 10 in the world’s top education systems and among the top 3 OECD countries in spending per capita on public postsecondary education. The quality of education is reflected by students’ high scores on international tests. The school system in Canada, however, may vary across provinces and territories. For example, schooling is mandatory to the age of 16 in most provinces, and to the age of 18 in New Brunswick and Ontario (or until completion of grade 12).

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canadian students are top performers in reading, literacy, maths and sciences, and number 1 among English speaking countries.

Last but not least, Canada attracted more than 200,000 international students in 2011 while 4 Canadian universities were included in the top 100 of the Shanghai World University Rankings (2012).