The biggest ever global school rankings have been published, with Asian countries at the top five places and African countries coming at the tail end of the list.
Singapore heads the table, followed by Hong Kong, with Ghana at the bottom.
The UK is in 20th place, among higher achieving European countries, with the US in 28th.
The OECD economic think tank says the comparisons – based on test scores in 76 countries – show the link between education and economic growth.
“This is the first time we have a truly global scale of the quality of education,” said the OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher.
“The idea is to give more countries, rich and poor, access to comparing themselves against the world’s education leaders, to discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to see what the long-term economic gains from improved quality in schooling could be for them,” he said.
It shows once again the poor performance of the United States, slipping behind successful European countries and being overtaken by Vietnam. It also highlights the decline of Sweden, with the OECD warning last week that it had serious problems in its education system.
The rankings are based on an amalgamation of international assessments, including the OECD’s Pisa tests, the TIMSS tests run by US-based academics and TERCE tests in Latin America, putting developed and developing countries on a single scale.
The findings will be formally presented at the World Education Forum in South Korea next week, where the United Nations is to convene a conference on targets for raising global education by 2030.
The top five places were all taken by Asian countries – Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
Countries Ranked Based on Mathematics and Sciences
2. Hong Kong
3. South Korea
4. Japan (joint)
4. Taiwan (joint)
17. New Zealand
20. United Kingdom
21. Czech Republic
28. Italy (joint)
28. United States (joint)
The five lowest-ranked countries are Oman in 72nd, Morocco, Honduras, South Africa and Ghana in last spot.
“If you go to an Asian classroom you’ll find teachers who expect every student to succeed. There’s a lot of rigour, a lot of focus and coherence,” says Mr Schleicher.
“These countries are also very good at attracting the most talented teachers in the most challenging classrooms, so that every student has access to excellent teachers.”
The report, published by the OECD and written by Eric Hanushek from Stanford University and Ludger Woessmann from Munich University, argues that the standard of education is a “powerful predictor of the wealth that countries will produce in the long run”.
If Ghana, the lowest ranked country, achieved basic skills for all its 15-year-olds, the report says that it would expand its current GDP by 38 times, over the lifetime of today’s youngsters.
The report will provide evidence for next week’s World Education Forum of how achieving education targets can deliver economic gains.
The milestone conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, will mark 15 years since the setting of education targets by world leaders.
These millennium targets for education, such as providing all children with a primary education, have not been fully achieved.
But the World Education Forum will set another round of global targets for the next 15 years. The list continues below:
37. Slovak Republic
53. Costa Rica
66. Saudi Arabia
75. South Africa