Education at a Glance: how are our schools doing? (Data from the OECD) By Barnaby Lenon

How are we doing as a country? This is such an important question – a high level question.  While we flounder around worrying about exam grading we too rarely ask the bigger question – are other countries doing better than us?

In September this year the OECD published its Education at a Glance analysis which compares the UK to other countries in the world.  Putting this together with the PISA 2018 data the conclusions are:

UK schools

1) We have relatively high proportions taking part in education between the ages of 3 to 5. The proportion has shot up in recent years.  But our spending on this age group is quite low and there are fewer qualified teachers compared to other countries.

2) In terms of overall spending on education as a proportion of GDP we are the fourth highest in the world. Our teacher pay is a good average but head teachers and MAT executives have very high pay compared to elsewhere.

3) The number of hours of teaching per week by teachers in the UK is high compared to other countries. We do not give them much time to plan.

The length of the state school year is above the OECD average.

4) Our results in English, maths and science are good, very good at the top end. But we have a long tail of underachievement, especially white working-class boys. England is ahead of the rest of the UK on all measures of achievement.

5) Although private schools contribute to social segregation in the school system, most of the social segregation across schools comes from within the state sector – the contrast between middle-class comprehensive schools/grammar schools and state schools in poorer areas.

6) Use of technology:  our schools use computers less than other countries, a weakness that was exposed during lockdown:


7) Our state schools spend less on capital projects than most countries:

8) Our primary school class sizes are high:


In state secondary schools the average number of pupils per teacher is 17; in private schools the figure is 8.

Vocational education

1) Our vocational education is weak compared to other countries. We spend less on it which is surprising – vocational education is normally more expensive than academic university courses but we spend more on the latter.

2) Students gain less in terms of the impact of their vocational education on their lifetime earnings than in other countries.

3) We have limited vocational education in schools. Work experience is what tends to make vocational education successful and the best countries combine time in school with work experience.

4) Very few of our students go from doing vocational education on to a university course. Enabling students to move between programme types, including into higher education, signals that vocational programmes are not an educational dead-end, but can open the door to further learning and self-development.

5) Adult vocational education in the UK is relatively weak.


1) The proportion going to university is high compared to many countries and is rising quite fast.  But the earnings benefits of going to university are more modest.  Our universities offer courses which are less relevant to employment and are of lower quality.

2) Unlike Switzerland, for example, our universities pay less attention to vocational courses.

3) In 2018, there were three international or foreign students for each national student studying abroad across OECD countries, but this ratio exceeds 10:1 in Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. We have one of the highest % of overseas students in the world, a quarter coming from China.

4) The evidence suggests that face-to-face contact with tutors is a very important part of the university experience. Online teaching will never be enough.

By Barnaby Lenon, Dean of Education at the University of Buckingham

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