Like other sensible people I'm encouraged by the Tories plans for education in England. The Swedish system of Free Schools has a lot to be said for it. Still, I wonder why the Tories have chosen Sweden as their role model rather than, say, the Netherlands or New Zealand both of which also have extensive school choice programmes. As you can see, both those countries score very well on the PISA* scale (generally seen, I think, as the best international comparison) and do markedly better than the UK.
Of course, Michael Gove's writ runs out at the Tweed. Which is a shame, since education policy in Scotland remains wholly in hock to the EIS and the other teaching unions. We continue to delude ourselves that Tartan Education is better than anything on offer anywhere else in the world when the results quite obviously demonstrate that this is not true. Reform and progress will only come once it's equally obvious that England is doing a much better job. Even then, large parts of the Scottish political and media establishment will remain in denial and, consequently, fail another generation of innocent kids.
New Zealand is a particularly interesting example since it has a) quite a large immigrant population and b) quite a high level of child poverty yet still manages to score excellently. Indeed, I've long thought that New Zealand is to the right what the Nordics are to the left: the place where our ideas are tried and found to work. If we were more like New Zealand we'd be better off. And not just on the rugby pitch.
Meanwhile, how about them Koreans? What explains their success? A friend who's teaching in Seoul has the answer:
Even after just 5 months in Korea I can tell you that the difference between the youth in the two countries is remarkable. Allowing for the fact that I am not necessarily seeing a representative cross-section of students, there is just no comparison.
90% of school students here go to some form of after-school education - mostly English, but anything from extra maths and science to ballet or taekwondo - and their parents drive them like slaves. I made the rookie error back in May of turning down a request for a short-notice workshop for some sixth-formers, by informing their mothers that unfortunately I was teaching till midnight. In the time it took me to make a cup of coffee they had phoned up the boss and scheduled a session from 12 - 3am, and then they all came back at 3 to pick their kids up so they could grab 4 hours sleep before school.
During summer holidays, which have just ended, they pick up the pace - because there's no school, see? So all the more time to cram in more classes. The idea of a bunch of 16 year-olds going off to Magaluf to get pissed and shag around for a week would be utterly alien to these people. There's no time - they've got classes at private academies all week!
It's no wonder that SK comes near the top of all the OECD league tables for education, but it's not because state education is any good but because there is a cultural paradigm here that demands hard work and application from kids.
Again, these are middle-class families we're talking about here with money to spare, so a direct read-across is fraught with danger - but it's hard to imagine the average British parent sitting in their car at midnight every night waiting for their kids to finish extra classes, let alone shelling out hundreds of quid every month for the privilege.
While I've been typing this line one of the youngest students I have, aged about 12 or 13, has just emailed me to ask if I can give him an extra 1-to-1 session next week on top of the 3 hour workshop he has each week, because he has a competition the following day and wants a "pep talk". It's 11:45pm on a Friday night.
*Table stolen from Matt Yglesias.