These countries have the best education systems in the world

best education system in the world
High school students cheer for their seniors taking the annual college entrance exam outside a high School in Seoul. Source: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

“The passport to your future,” “the most powerful weapon,” “the key to unlocking the world” — these are just three ways education has been described.

Everyone wants the best education and they’re willing to pay loads, spend a lot of time and even move countries to find the best education system in the world for themselves or for their children.

The search for the perfect, flawless, best education system in the world, however, is more complex than it seems.

You’re not just looking at schools and students and how well they did in exams. There are many more hidden factors that determine how well you or your child will learn.

For one, the quality of a country’s schools is closely linked to its economic status and overall well-being.

But does this mean the richest countries in the world have the best education system in the world?

That’s not quite right, either, for reasons we will outline below.

Factors such as quality of living, teacher-student ratio and availability of public resources for schools matter too. They influence some rankings of the best education system in the world.

It’s a lot and gets confusing quickly — which is why many rely on one ranking to see how smart a child in the US is doing compared to one in India: PISA scores.

Is the best education system in the world determined by PISA scores?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-old students in dozens of countries to apply reading, science, maths and other skills to real-life problems.

Taking place every three years, the PISA results include data on how students perform at different levels, their attitudes towards learning, their family backgrounds and other learning experiences.

Done every three years, it unearths the strengths and weaknesses of a country’s education system, which usually spurs them to take measures to improve.

While PISA scores are widely used and carry weight, there have been several criticisms and debates surrounding them. This includes:

  • The narrow focus: PISA only assess students based on reading, mathematics and science, which does not capture the full range of knowledge and skills that students need
  • Puts pressure on students: PISA scores are often used to compare and rank countries, which can put pressure on students, teachers and education systems
  • Not all students take part in the tests, which then skews the results
the best education system in the world

The US is renowned as a country with the best education system in the world. Source: Logan Riely/AFP

10 countries with the best education system in the world

The following countries are models of the best education system in the world for the following reasons:

  • It has top-ranking universities, on respected global rankings such as Times Higher Education or QS. This is a reflection of older students doing well academically.
  • Its younger students are reading and counting well too, as seen from their performance on international education tests, such as but not limited to PISA
  • It has graduates who have produced innovative products or services
  • There is a national belief in the importance of education, which can be seen through big investments in its schools and teachers, among others.

1. US

Many believe the US, a global superpower, has the best educational system in the world. And they’re not wrong.

US universities are home to many Nobel Laureates, more than universities in any other nation. And its universities are often in the top 10 of global rankings.

Within the higher education realm, its civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s famous quote rings true: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.”

However, in the most recent PISA assessment conducted in 2018, the US’s performance in numeracy was slightly below the OECD average. OECD is a group of mostly wealthy countries.

The US currently facing low literacy rates, with almost two-thirds of its children struggling to read.

Almost 60% of students in high-poverty schools in the Boston area are at high risk for reading difficulties. This is twice the pre-pandemic rate.

These figures don’t apply across the country. Numeracy scores in the US can vary across different states and student groups due to the diversity of the education system and socioeconomic factors.

best education system in the world

The aphorism “Education isn’t the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” holds true in the UK, one of the best education systems in the world. Source: Oli Scarff/AFP

2. UK 

There’s a well-known quote about education among Brits: “Education isn’t the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

The sparks are evident in the 2023 QS World University Rankings, where some of UK’s top universities placed in the world’s top 10:

  • University of Oxford (#2)
  • University of Cambridge (#4)
  • Imperial College London (#6)
  • UCL (#8)

For all the flaws in rankings, they still represent something. And in the case of the UK, that it has world-class research — the kind that’s finding treatment for ovarian cancer, discovering the causes behind obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCDs), shedding light on the origins of animals, and more.

Similar to the US, the quality of its schools isn’t as stellar as its unis. In the most recent PISA assessment conducted in 2018, the UK’s performance in numeracy was around the OECD average.

3. Canada 

In the latest PISA results in 2000, Canadian students placed sixth in reading, eighth in science and 12th in math among 78 participating countries.

Four of its universities are in the world’s top 100 (Times Higher Education):

  • University of Toronto (#18)
  • University of British Columbia (#40)
  • McGill University (#46)
  • McMaster University (#85)

Together, it’s an ecosystem that’s led to many amazing discoveries over the years. This includes:

  • insulin
  • telephone
  • light bulb
  • garbage bags
  • peanut butter

According to Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education director, Canada’s schools and universities trump others as its “big uniting theme is equity.” No one’s left behind.

Speaking to the BBC, Schleicher says there is a strong sense of fairness and equal access – and this is seen in the high academic performance of migrant children.

4. Germany 

If the German proverb goes “What little Hans didn’t learn, big Hans doesn’t know” then there are many little Hans who have learned a lot — so much so that they beat the OECD average in reading (498 score points), mathematics (500) and science (503).

When they progress to universities, they can choose from eight that are in the world’s top 100:

  • Technical University of Munich (#30)
  • LMU Munich (#33)
  • Universität Heidelberg(#43)
  • Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin (#73)
  • Humboldt University of Berlin (#86)
  • University of Tübingen (#86)
  • University of Bonn (#89)
  • Free University of Berlin (#91)
  • RWTH Aachen University (#99)

Some of the greatest German inventions that changed the world include:

  • diesel engine
  • printing press
  • helicopters
  • coffee filter
the best educational system in the world

Australia is at the top of the list for the best educational system in the world. Source: Marco Longari/AFP

5. Australia  

Although students in Australia scored higher than the OECD average in reading (503 points) and science (503), they didn’t do that much better than the OECD average in mathematics (491).

The reason? Most students didn’t try very hard as the exams didn’t count towards their school marks.

“These results are comparable with the OECD average of 68% of students claiming they tried less on the PISA tests than they would if it counted towards their school grades,” wrote Stewart Riddle, Associate Professor at the School of Education, University of Southern Queensland, in The Conversation.

“In contrast, students in the highest-performing education systems of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang (China) reported very high levels of effort.”

Although often overshadowed by Oxbridge and the Ivy League, Australian universities are still among the world’s best.

Seven Australian universities were featured in the top 100 list of the 2022 QS rankings. Some notable institutions in the country include:

  • UNSW Sydney
  • University of Melbourne
  • University of Sydney

Here, scientist James Harrison invented the refrigeration system, which was used to invent refrigerators.

6. Finland

Finland’s performance in the PISA has been widely recognised and admired. This success can be attributed to various factors, including a highly qualified teaching workforce, equitable access to education, a student-centred approach, and a strong emphasis on early childhood education.

Compared to many other countries, Finnish schools generally assign less homework to students. The aim is to provide students with sufficient time for other activities, such as play, hobbies, and spending time with family, which are considered important for their overall well-being.

According to the QS World University Rankings 2022, the top universities in Finland are:

  • University of Helsinki
  • Aalto University
  • University of Turku

Here’s a list of things you probably didn’t know were invented in Finland:

  • Sauna
  • Nokia mobile phones
  • RFID
  • Ice skates
best education system in the world

Luo Yifei, PhD student at Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) School of Materials Science and Engineering, attaching an electrode on the surface of a Venus flytrap plant at a laboratory in Singapore, as scientists develop a high-tech system for communicating with vegetation. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP

7. Singapore 

Singapore has earned a reputation for offering the best education system in the world — and you won’t need to dive deep before encountering how its founding prime minister’s views on education played a role in this.

Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first prime minister, famously said:

  • “If you want to reach your goals and dreams, you cannot do it without discipline.”
  • “If there was one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better.”
  • “What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.”

Discipline, perseverance and resiliency — these values have shaped Lee’s goals “to develop Singapore’s only available natural resource, its people”.

Singapore topped the rankings in numeracy in the most recent PISA assessment conducted in 2018. Students demonstrated exceptional mathematical skills, problem-solving abilities, and a strong foundation in numeracy.

Much of this is due to public policy done right:

  • Generous scholarship to enable its best and brightest to enter some of the world’s premier universities
  • Teacher starting salaries are more than the national median, attracting the country’s top graduates to the profession. Teachers also get 100 hours of training a year to keep up to date with the latest techniques
  • A focus on identifying and developing talented students and directing them towards public service
  • Focus on bilingualism and science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • Big investments in education research. They test all reforms and monitor all outcomes before rolling them out./ among the best in the world.

Singaporean innovators have played a crucial role in developing electronic devices and household items that have become essential parts of our everyday routines.

These inventions include sustainable manufactured fish, an infrared fever screening framework, the mini-DNA sequencing machine and many more.

8. Netherlands 

The education system in the Netherlands is known worldwide for being one of the best in the world. This is due to its excellent quality and many top-ranked world-class universities. 

In the most recent PISA assessment conducted in 2018, the Netherlands performed above the OECD average in numeracy.

Though the Netherlands is a non-English speaking country, many universities in the country offer English-taught courses for the ease of international students who are not familiar with the country’s official language.

This, combined with the well-designed, cutting-edge facilities and curriculum these institutions offer, makes the Dutch curriculum one of the best education systems in the world.

The cost of education in the Netherlands is comparatively lower too, making it one of the cheapest European countries

Here are inventions you probably didn’t know were invented in the Netherlands:

  • microscope
  • eye test
  • cassette, CD and DVD
  • Wi-Fi
best educational system in the world

France is known as the city of love and one of the countries offering the best educational system in the world. Source: Jeff Pachoud/AFP

9. France 

France is known for much more than the Eifel Tower, croissants and fashion. The country is known globally for having the best education system in the world.  

In France, education is one of the most basic rights of its citizens. The country made it compulsory for those between the age of six to 16 to receive education

In the most recent PISA assessment conducted in 2018, students in France scored 493 points in reading, slightly above the OECD average (487). However, their performance in numeracy was slightly below the OECD average.

Nonetheless, some of its universities are known to rival MIT (University of Paris-Saclay) and to have one of the world’s finest engineering schools (Ecole Polytechnique) in the world.

And apart from the US, France has more Fields medal-winners for maths than any other country. It’s an award given to two to four mathematicians under 40 years of age at the International Congress of the International Mathematical Union (IMU) every four years. Think of it as the Nobel Prize of Mathematics.

Aside from its excellent education system, did you know that France is also known for the invention of hair dryers and pencil sharpeners?

best education system in the world

Students and visitors walk around the campus of Ewha Womans University in Seoul on March 2, 2023, which was founded in 1886. Source: Anthony Wallace/AFP

10. South Korea 

In South Korea, education comes first. Nine out of 10 elementary school students receive private tutoring after school, and eight out of 10 high school graduates go to college.

This is thanks to a Confucian legacy revering education — one that’s enabled it to perform very well in the PISA. Its students have achieved high rankings in PISA since their participation in the assessments began in 2000.

South Korea is also home to several prestigious universities known for their academic excellence, research output, and global reputation. Here are some of the top universities in South Korea:

  • Seoul National University (SNU)
  • Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)
  • Korea University

And there’s no need to highlight that some of the smartest TVs and smartphones were invented in South Korea.