In recent years it has become possible to compare educational standards across the world through the triennial surveys of the knowledge and skills of 15 year-olds published by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).1 More than 400,000 students from fifty-seven countries, making up close to 90 per cent of the world economy, took part in PISA 2006. The focus was on science, but comparative performance of the participating countries in maths and reading was also done. In addition, data are collected on pupils’ family and social backgrounds which would explain the differences in performance. For a comparison of selective indicators from the study, see Table 16.1. In the three comparisons of science, maths and reading, Finland, Korea, Canada or

Hong Kong, China usually feature in the top three. See charts at the end of this chapter. While the United Kingdom surprisingly rates number 10 out of 57 countries in sci-

ence, despite the recent decline in A-level science entries, it ranks only 22 in maths and 14 in reading. The United States ranks 32 in maths, has no measure for reading and rated 24 in science. A recent Policy Exchange study draws some important conclusions from the data

which supports the general conclusions in Chapter 1 of this book on what makes a good school.2 Importantly, it emphasises that good systems of education must ‘generate both a basic level of equity and excellence’. The study also agrees that autonomy for schools is important providing there are

national clear and consistent accountability measures. One crucial lesson to be drawn from both the OECD data and the Policy Exchange

paper is the importance of national accountability standards. The United States, despite its wealth and economic might, rates poorly in the OECD measures. A particular problem is the almost complete absence of national accountability measures. Instead, they are provided either on a state, or local basis. This is the principal reason for the disappointing results of the recent ‘No Child Left Behind’ initiative of George W. Bush. Despite generous federal financial support, little progress has been made in raising standards in most urban school board funded US schools. There are many reasons for

this failure, as Chapter 17 explains, including the power of the teachers’ unions to frustrate reform, the micro-management of schools by urban school boards and the heavy concentration of ethnic minorities, many of them recent immigrants in some American cities. As the Policy Exchange3 study says ‘balancing school autonomy with central oversight

enables innovation and independent action at the school level while at the same time maximising economics of such a transferral of best practice’. The Policy Exchange study analyses four particular countries: New Zealand; Canada

(Ontario and Alberta); Hong Kong and Sweden, who did so well in the 2006 PISA comparative evaluation. The study draws the following general conclusions.