world class education systems

World Class Education Systems

National and global concerns collide in education systems all over the world. Who is winning the international race to prepare their students for the future?

Public education systems the world over are one of the most clear expressions of a country’s identity, and a reflection of the cultural, economic and social values that it aims to develop and promote. In a country’s schools, it is possible to see how policymakers view their country’s future; by the challenges it is preparing its citizens to cope with.

The resources spent on education are an investment into its workforce and can be a chance to focus on certain sectors or fields, if they are considered particularly necessary to the country’s success. An education system can be an agent of social and economic mobility, lifting people out of poverty and on to better things, or a way to maintain the status quo, for better or worse. The outputs of the system – literacy rates, graduation and completion rates, the percentage of students going on to higher education, and the level of advancement of the workforce – are all a measure of how efficiently the government can allocate the resources available to them.

We are constantly being reminded of the effects of globalisation, meaning that our students are no longer facing only the competition of their national peers, but are increasingly in a global race for exam results, university places, and eventually jobs. It is no wonder, therefore, that the major global education indexes, such as Pearson’s global Learning Curve index and the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International School Assessment) scores garner so much attention. Asian countries now top most of these global education rankings, with a few regular entries from Europe.

So what are the values and practices that the education systems of these countries espouse? What makes them successful, and what has driven their success? And in what ways does this success come at the expense of other aspects of life? If our students are competing at a global level, are any of these features transferable between nations, and can we learn from the way other countries are educating their kids? Here we take a look at four examples in the top five education systems from Pearson’s most recent assessment.

South Korea

Just 60 years ago, after suffering under Japanese annexation and the war with North Korea, South Korean society was almost totally illiterate. Today it enjoys an almost 100% literacy rate, achieved since the mid-60s, and an advanced, highly skilled economy. Graduation and completion rates at all levels of the education system are among the highest in the OECD. Teachers are among the best-paid and respected professionals in society, hired directly by the Ministry of Education. The government spends only around half of what the US spends on education, yet South Korean children are steaming ahead of their American peers.

This huge and rapid success story is very much the result of a collective attitude among the South Koreans that investment in education is part of their civic duty and vital in ensuring their country’s future success. Educating the workforce that has driven the development of their ‘tiger economy’ is ingrained in teachers, politicians, parents and students alike.

The ethos running through the system from kindergarten to university is still largely based on the Confucianism that still permeates South Korean culture – conformity, order, standardised testing, rote learning, memorising, egalitarianism, and high expectations to perform. Parents pray for the good results of their children above all else, and significant social status is attached to the academic success of a son or daughter.

This inevitably leads to long hours of studying, a high proportion of wages being spent on extra tutoring and after-school crammer schools (called ‘hogwans’), as well as heavy pressure to get into the best universities. The university exam process includes a daylong entrance exam, called the ‘suneung’. The pressure to achieve academically is so strong that the ‘hogwans’ have had curfews imposed on them.

Although this results-focused system produces incredibly successful and skilled graduates, forcing children to study from waking until sleep is not without downsides, of course. The country has a high suicide rate and it is the number one cause of death in people aged 15 to 24. This has led policymakers in the country to reassess the level of arts and creative elements in the curriculum, and to warn parents when their children may be at breaking point. They are increasingly finding that the type of education needed for the country’s rapid industrialisation is not the same as the one needed for a society with a more developed middle class and a modern, developed economy.

As a result, policymakers are currently looking at ways to make the system more about supporting the students to find their own paths, develop analytical skills, and social and emotional capabilities.


The Japanese education system is built on a mix of practices from around the world, including elements of the French, German, US and English systems, melded together with strong Japanese values. The curriculum is renowned for its rigorous approach, with politicians currently prizing maths and science even higher than liberal arts and humanities, particularly at universities, in an attempt to revamp the workforce and spur economic growth. The focus in the Japanese system has traditionally been on problem solving, teaching the underlying concepts of disciplines, accompanied by a great deal of rote learning. Japan’s meritocratic culture and the high importance attached to effort over relying on talent alone, are the principles underlying the whole system. In a similar way to the South Korean culture, there are high societal expectations on achieving academically, especially from family, peers, and teachers.

While teachers are among the highest paid civil servants, as it is considered among one of the most aspirational professions, government spending on education on the whole is comparatively low by global standards. The funding is almost all directed to academic pursuits, rather than anything extra-curricular or even basic facilities, such as kitchens. The egalitarian style system means that centralised and equal funding is apportioned to each school, and the national curriculum means that all students are studying the same thing, at the same rate. They also study for a larger proportion of the year than their western contemporaries.

The main criticism of the system is that it is largely one-dimensional. There is little room for extra-curricular activities, or fun within the school day. The recent drive to boost maths and science in the education system also narrows any existing focus on an achieving an ‘all-rounder’ education.


Singapore’s incredibly successful education system has been a mainstay at the top of international education rankings for years. This is a huge achievement for a nation who was largely illiterate as little as 50 years ago. At the beginning of its transformation into an economic success story, Singapore’s policymakers focused chiefly on raising literacy rates, before moving onto improving teaching methods, and encouraging students to develop beyond learning by rote. Traditionally the system was based on a centralised national curriculum, with a unified approach to teaching across subjects, which focused on national exams at the end of primary and secondary school.

As a result of this heavily entrenched model, classrooms are still orderly, teachers tend to speak and students listen, and in many cases, high levels of debate or discussion are not encouraged, with much of the learning still occurring by drilling. Much of the testing traditionally concentrated on whether children knew the right answer, as opposed to awarding marks for how they got to it, or wider understanding around the issue. Students continue to be streamed based on the results of these exams, which inevitably determine their success later on, as they compete for the best universities.

The perceived success of this results-focused system to date has not allowed policymakers to rest on their laurels. There is significant research and government funding into evidence-based educational research, and, in the past 10 to 20 years, a huge drive to ‘modernise’ the system away from the obsession with exams. The government believes that cutting elements of the curriculum (by as much as 10-20% in some areas) will lead to a less pressurised system in which students are taught less, but learn in a more effective way.

They are implementing initiatives to encourage teachers to promote creative thinking, innovation, knowledge building and problem solving, and not just teaching directly to the highly regarded national exam syllabus. Despite this, the longstanding practices are difficult to shake. Teachers enjoy high status and a fair amount of autonomy, while parents place high expectations on them and their children to succeed. Universities and employers still judge students on results prized by the old system. Therefore, most stakeholders in the system still prize exams above all else, so while this means the country scores highly in international ranking systems for maths, science and English, it also means it is a huge challenge to motivate everyone involved to bring about change.

The loyalty to the existing system is partly borne out of a collective cultural commitment to education as part of a state project to build an economically strong, ethnically diverse, meritocratic state. There is a shared understanding that while education is important for the individual, it also serves a greater purpose and is part of one’s obligations to society and family. The government is hoping to build on this enormously valuable commitment to education and achievement and bring the system in line with its ambitious ‘teach less, learn more’ policy. Singapore’s position in global education rankings in the years to come will tell if the Asia Pacific focus on exams can be exist in harmony with softer Western educational practices.


40 years ago the Finnish government implemented wide-ranging and extensive education reforms. Since then the system has routinely been held up as one of the finest in the world, and the best in Europe, with high participation and completion rates, the highest proportion of University graduates in Europe, a high number of students taking useful, vocational courses, and teaching being seen as a respected profession.

The country is renowned for shunning the ‘testing-based’ model that is employed by much of the rest of the world. Children do not begin formal schooling until age 7 – instead they are encouraged to learn through play and exploring the outdoors. The idea is that once they reach 7, they are mature enough to concentrate properly, and learn better. The children are not streamed, regardless of intelligence and ability. School days begin later, there are fewer lessons in a day, and there is more time allocated to extracurricular pursuits, including ‘real-world’ activities, such as cooking and woodwork, as well as outdoor activities. Crucially for participation rates, children have very little homework and almost no testing until they are older. In fact, there is only one major state exam that they must do at the end of school, age 16.

One of the most significant features of the education system is the relationship of the student with their teacher. Firstly, teachers are highly respected, and the BA and MA university courses that are required for the profession are among the most competitive in the country, so they attract some of the brightest minds. In schools, teachers have more flexibility with their time, due to the fact that they teach fewer lessons and tests, so they have more time to spend on planning and preparing for classes. Often, a teacher will teach the same class up for a number of years, so the children benefit from a consistent relationship.

The fact that Finnish government spending on education is around a third lower than in the US should come as no surprise, given the widely held ethos among the country’s educators that ‘less is more’. The real crux of the system is a strong belief and high value attributed to a strong relationship between parents, teachers, and children, and the expectation that if everyone plays their part, the system will deliver for every child.


These schooling systems give a narrow glimpse into the factors that propel students to the top of their abilities, albeit as assessed by certain criteria. As a whole the Asian nations exhibit views such as rewarding diligence over pure ‘talent’ or just being ‘smart’, the aim to be meritocratic and nationally centralised, with little variation between schools. There is huge pressure from all angles to perform, with parents doubling up on the efforts of teachers to get their children a good education. Testing is largely prized in Asia, although this seems to be losing appeal. In the UK, which also ranks highly in these ratings, there is a current debate about whether to revert to a more Asian model of testing, at a time when many Asian nations are looking to introduce softer Western ideals into their harsher practices.

It is important to note the context in which these education systems have become some of the best in the world. Most of these nations were on their knees economically and politically at the time when the education reforms were implemented. Education, therefore, was used as one of the principal tools to lift the country up and develop the skills of the population. This explains the shared belief among policymakers, parents, students and educators that the value of education extends far beyond the individual, even to the extent where health, fun, mental stability, and happiness should be sacrificed. If students do not succeed in these contexts, they have much further to fall, and less to rely on if they fail.

Now that the countries have reached economic success of various levels, they are looking at which values and practices are appropriate for the country’s next phase. In many cases, this means moving away from the notion of academic success at all costs. Finland is an example of a developed nation with a newly reformed education system that is designed to work for all children and a high focus on wellbeing and learning outside the classroom. The fundamental thing it shares with its Asian peers is the commitment of parents, teachers, policymakers, and students, proving that the value of education can be instilled in a culture at any level of development.

These systems also have in common a high level of respect and resources for the teachers.
Despite the success of the Asia Pacific nations, it is important to note that the top 20 often includes countries such as Switzerland, the UK, the US, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada and so on. We may be in awe of results achieved by Eastern peers in maths and science, but they are increasingly also looking back West for a deeper understanding of how to engage students in a more creative and fulfilling education.


  • South Korea
  • Japan
  • Singapore
  • Hong Kong
  • Finland
  • UK
  • Canada
  • Netherlands
  • Ireland
  • Poland
  • Denmark
  • Germany
  • Russia
  • United States
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Israel
  • Belgium
  • Czech Republic
  • Switzerland

Source: Pearson/ Economist Intelligence Unit

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