The rankings, which take into account cognitive skills and educational attainment, see Finland and South Korea in the top two places.
To compile the list, researchers used data from the international OECD/PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS assessments in reading, maths and science, as well as data on literacy and school and university graduation rates.
The work has been carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and shows high-performers Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore in third, fourth and fifth places ahead of the UK. Canada was ranked 10th and the US 17th in the table.
The findings have been published in a report from Pearson called The Learning Curve and compiled into a free online database to allow researchers and policy-makers to compare data from the 50 countries in the Index to see what factors influence educational standards and performance.
The data includes information such as government spending on education, school entrance age, teacher salaries, literacy and graduation rates from school and university, national unemployment rates, and GDP.
The cognitive skills category comprises the international tests in maths, reading and science with the leading countries again being Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.
However, in the educational attainment category, which is based on literacy and graduation rates, South Korea leads, followed by the UK in second and then Finland, Poland and Ireland.
The research points out that the top two countries, Finland the South Korea, are two very different education systems – the latter test-driven and rigid, the former more relaxed and flexible. However, it adds: “Closer examination, though, shows that both countries develop high-quality teachers, value accountability and have a moral mission that underlies education efforts.”
Researchers also warned that culture may matter more than money: “Cultural change around education and ambition is equally, if not more, important than income in promoting better educational outcomes.”
The study also emphasises that good teachers who are well respected are essential: “Creating the best teachers is about more than paying a good salary. The best performing countries attract top talent, train teachers throughout their careers and allow them freedom too.”
Former government education advisor, Sir Michael Barber, who is now Pearson’s chief education advisor, said: “We’re urging all governments to commit to recording and sharing more data, so that globally we can really understand what works, equipping teachers and schools with the tools they need to produce students who successfully shape the economies and societies of the future.”
Denis McCauley, executive editor of business research at EIU, added: “The Learning Curve breaks new ground in terms of data collection and analysis, but there is so much more to do. We hope our study serves as a catalyst for further collaborative efforts by academics, practitioners and policy-makers to deepen our knowledge about what contributes to better education performance and outcomes.”
The Learning Curve Data Bank is published online at http://thelearningcurve.pearson.com
Global Index of Cognitive Skills/Educational Attainment
NB: The z-score indicates how many standard deviations an observation is above the mean of all the countries in the Index.
1, FINLAND, 1.26
2, SOUTH KOREA1.23
3, HONG KONG-CHINA, 0.90
4, JAPAN, 0.89
5, SINGAPORE, 0.84
6, UNITED KINGDOM, 0.60
7, THE NETHERLANDS, 0.59
8, NEW ZEALAND, 0.56
9, SWITZERLAND, 0.55
10, CANADA, 0.54
11, IRELAND, 0.53
12, DENMARK, 0.50
13, AUSTRALIA, 0.46
14, POLAND, 0.43
15, GERMANY, 0.41