Lee Elliot Major contrasts England’s education performance with other English speaking countries.

“England and America are two countries divided by a common language.” Was this famous phrase uttered by George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde? Either way, it was pertinent that the remark came from an Irishman: the same claim could now be made about any country in the Anglosphere – and that includes Ireland.

The world’s English-speaking countries, which include the home nations of Britain and the United States, Australia and Canada, have much in common – culturally, historically, economically. And yet as recent political events testify, they are also very different. And nowhere else is this more true than in their national education policies.


The Anglosphere: countries in which English is the first language are shown in blue; countries where English has status as an official language are in light blue.

Anglophone countries make international comparisons of education performance much more meaningful. There is a sneaking suspicion that the stellar performers on the world stage (think Finland and Singapore) do well because of factors outside, not inside, the school gates. These countries are simply smaller, more equal and just different societies; the lessons from school policy are far from clear. Comparing education in similar countries however might just provide some insights into which national school approaches are most effective.

Two of the world’s leading experts (who happen to be American) have produced the Sutton Trust’s latest research brief on what we know about country comparisons of education inequality.  Jane Waldfogel of Columbia and Sean Reardon of Stanford consider how gaps between the education haves and have-nots in the UK compare with similar gaps in other countries.

Children from poorer families in Australia and Canada have a much greater chance of doing well at school than children in Britain the United States. And this is the case even though Britain and the US spend a greater proportion of their Gross Domestic Product on schooling. But also gaps at school entry (at age 5 or 6) are larger in the US and UK than in Canada and Australia.

The graph below documents these in standard deviations – very broadly one standard deviation corresponds to about a year’s academic development. The gap in school readiness between children from highly-educated parents and lowly educated parents is about 1 standard deviation in the US, about 0.8 standard deviation in the UK, but closer to 0.5 standard deviation in Australia and Canada. These differences suggest that improving the quality of preschool education for children age 3 and 4 should remain a priority for Britain (and the US).


This month’s latest OECD rankings meanwhile have highlighted other potentially illuminating gaps in the Anglosphere. England’s Pisa performance is a news editor’s nightmare: stable, unchanging and middle of the international pack. Yet England’s test results for 15 year olds in maths, reading and science are significantly higher than their counterparts in Wales and Scotland. It’s more food for thought for Sir Alasdair Macdonald, the Welsh education tzar (a Scot who made his reputation leading a London school).

But what can be inferred from these variations? Some commentators have suggested that the Celtic nations could learn lessons from England’s accountability reforms that have unleashed ever more public scrutiny of school results. Yet, could it be out-of-school investments that are making the difference? The Sutton Trust has documented booming levels of private tutoring over recent years that has characterized the south east of England in particular. Could it be down simply to the distribution of quality teachers across the regions?

Meanwhile, children in Britain and the US are at least twice as likely to have been born to teenage mothers as children in Australia and Canada. We know that this is a strong predictor of poor educational results. And is it more than a coincidence that Canada and Ireland perform so well in the Pisa tests and also have much lower income inequality than their Anglo-peers? This is something the Canadian economist Miles Corak has charted through the famous Great Gatsby Curve. With Brexit and Trump, these Anglosphere comparisons may become even more interesting in future years. But we will still have to heed Oscar Wilde’s wise words, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

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