• The Invisible Hand

Which Country Has the Best... Education?

Based on PISA rankings, which are international, standardised tests, consistently it is Singapore, Estonia and Finland which reach the top. So what makes an education system successful?


Remarkably, Singapore tops the PISA rankings in maths, reading and science, despite only spending 3.3% of their GDP on education. Compared to the US, in maths students in Singapore are three years ahead if American students. Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has recognised that because it has so few raw materials it needs to develop its human capital- and it has been very successful. What is consistent among the top countries for education systems is that there are no wide differences between standard of education between wealthy and disadvantaged families. The system works for everybody and struggling students get extra sessions to help them keep up. Equal educational opportunities gives the poorer who would normally struggle the opportunity to excel and it creates more competitive barriers where there are lower barriers to succeeding.

The key to Singapore’s, and other high ranking countries, success is the focus on developing highly skilled teachers. All teachers are centrally trained at the vast National Institute of Education and teachers direct learning rather than allowing students to teach themselves. There is a compulsory minimum of 100 hours of teacher training a year and rigorous annual performance targets. However, most importantly there is a strong incentive structure for teachers. There is opportunity for advancement through teaching as specialist teachers get the opportunity to become ‘master teachers’ where they will train other teachers or they could get posting to the ministry of education. This means that top students can aspire to become top teachers and education doesn’t lose out on talent which it does in the Western world to law and medicine.

Singapore’s classrooms utilise the economist’s best tool- competition. There is a better attitude among students to perform to their highest ability. There has been a backlash against some educational practices. Critics accuse it of making students depressed and stressed, although in actual fact Singaporean student reported more happiness than Finland. Critics also target the division of high and low achievers at the age of 12. However, this is the most efficient system and unlike the grammar school system in the UK, the best teachers often teach the worst students.


A country you would not expect to have world-class education is Estonia, yet it is ranked 3rd in Science, 6th in reading and 9th in Maths. It also only spends 5.5% of GDP. So far both top countries have spent a small fraction of their GDP on education, which proves that it is not necessarily quantity of spending, but also how productively it is used. This is an important lesson for all government policy makers who think increasing spending will always lead to the biggest improvements.

Like Singapore, Estonia puts an emphasis on equal opportunities for all students and they give teachers greater independence and trust. Teachers have also seen their annual salary grow by 50% in just five years and there is a high level of investment in training. This shows that effective education mostly depends on nurturing strong teachers.

However, its strength also depends on the work ethnic of the students. It is this which perhaps has made Estonia’s system so effective. Parents are determined for their children to succeed and discipline is serious. Education is valued highly so having fun is not key aim in the classroom. This has led to criticism at the amount of work students do with the average student doing 17 hours of homework a week.

Estonia has been successful in emulating the Singaporean system, whether that was their intention or not. Despite being a poor country they have achieved high quality education by combining a focus on fostering good teaching and a stern work ethic. Estonia is definitely a country to look out for in the future, when these highly skilled workers start joining the workforce.


Finland adopts a quite radically different system to both Estonia and Singapore. Instead of enforcing a relentless work ethic, they try to encourage students to have spare time and as a result they have gained a lot of popularity for their lack of homework. Their school days are short, in fact, the shortest in Western Europe, so their student can relax.

Like Singapore, they encourage teacher autonomy but they have gone one step further and have abandoned standardised, national testing. They stress the importance of having highly educated teachers by requiring them to have a masters degree. This has made teaching a more prestigious job and attracted more talent. However, perhaps Finlands greatest success is creating a system where all schools are equal. They have done this by making private schools illegal and trying vigorously to keep school quality standard across the country. Compared to the UK system where there is big variations in the quality of education, this is was a welcome topic to research. A more equal schooling system reduces inequality and ensures talent is never held back by poor schools.

Finland’s system is unique in the fact that it puts a lot of trust in its students and it is questionable whether this system could be translated into other nations. It has worked for Finland, but probably won’t elsewhere.


There are a few characteristics to all these educational systems:

1. Focus on creating top quality teachers who have more independence. Including higher pay and more training

2. Applying the principle of equal opportunities for all students

3. Creating a constructive attitude of students

If other countries want to create similarly world renowned educational systems we need to copy these systems, particularly the focus on creating ‘super teachers’. Governments should not just pump more money into education instead they need to look at the whole structure of education. Fundamentally, it is the skills of workers which determine the strength of an economy. With improvement to education, a country can radically improve its long-run prospects and move on to the next stage of development.

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