Top Of The Class: These Are The Most Highly-Educated Countries In The World

Providing high-quality education is complicated. A school’s quality depends on government funding, teacher experience, course standards, and student culture. As a result, every country’s school system is different. Some nations are not as well-educated as others.

Does your home country provide quality education? You may be surprised–some countries’ classes are so advanced that 99% of their population is literate. Other nations supply a successful education, but their students still struggle because of the pressure. Learn which countries have the best schools in the world.

Most People Go To College In Canada

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In 2020, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analyzed every country’s education system. They graded nations based on the number of adults who completed a two-year or four-year tertiary degree. By this standard, Canada is the most educated country in the world.

Education is a high priority in Canada, and it receives federal funding. Over 56% of Canadians have a college degree. Around 34% have completed a master’s or Ph.D. as well. Of the 90% of Canadians who have a high school degree, many attended vocational schools that trained them for careers.

French Students Spend Long Hours In Class

French students walk to class.
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PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images

French education is both exceptional and highly competitive. There, many children enter kindergarten at a young age, some at two years old. Primary school class time is notoriously long; French students spend 900 hours in class, longer than any other European country. In exchange, they receive more vacation time.

To enter university, students have to pass the Baccalauréat or Bac, also called the Bac exam. The test takes six days to complete. After students pass, they can choose from 84 universities with free tuition. Over 35% of French citizens have a higher degree.

How South Korean Test Scores Have Skyrocketed

Students sit in a classroom in Seoul.
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JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

In 2017, South Korea ranked number one on the World Top 20 Education Poll–for the fourth year in a row. The country is well known for its exceptional education. The South Korean government takes schooling and curriculum tests very seriously, much like Japan.

According to the OECD, 70% of the country’s citizens have completed a university degree. The country’s economic system relies on a baseline college degree. Because so many students attend university, competition is fierce. South Korean students risk burning out or becoming depressed from fatigue.

Finland Is So Successful That Others Have Copied Their System

Students do work in a Finnish classroom.
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Fishman/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Finland’s schools are so successful that many other countries have tried to imitate their techniques. According to the Smithsonian, Finland follows the philosophy “whatever it takes.” Teachers give extra lessons to students who need it. And they can afford to because Finnish teachers are paid far more than American teachers.

In Finland, primary and secondary schools are far more flexible than in other countries. They have no standardized tests, and the national core curriculum (NCC) allows teachers to change the curriculum. At least 93% of Finnish students graduate from high school, and 66% move on to university.

Japanese Schools Are Highly Competitive

Students of the Futaba Mirai Gakuen Hight School pose for the photo in their classroom.
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David Mareuil/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Japan has consistently performed well in international survey tests throughout the years. Students have frequently performed well on curriculum-based tests such as the PISA and TIMSS. However, many residents have criticized Japanese education for its strictness and high pressure.

Unlike other education systems, Japanese students have to take a test to get into high school. The result is many students dropping out and working without a secondary degree. Still, 51% of Japanese citizens receive a college or university degree. Many private schools, called juku or “cram schools,” help students study for tests to get into their desired schools.

The United States’ “Factory Model” Schools

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Ragnheiður Harvey/Pinterest
Ragnheiður Harvey/Pinterest

For years, the United States has ranked within the OECD’s top ten countries for superb education. The United States spends more on its students than the OECD average, and over 46% of its students complete higher education.

However, America falls behind in certain areas. For instance, average American math scores are almost three years behind Singapore’s. One reason could be the school’s “factory model” that has not changed much since the industrial revolution. Plus, America does not educate or pay its teachers as well as other countries.

Russia’s Literacy Rate Is Impressive

Russian students attend a sign language class.
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Anton PodgaikoTASS via Getty Images

Despite the country’s enormous size, Russia has one of the best mass-education systems in the world. Over 98% of its citizens are literate, which is far above the European average. This is true despite having fewer school hours; class usually begins around 8:00 a.m. and ends around 2:00 p.m.

In Russia, secondary school is required from age ten to 15. If a student wants to attend university, they must continue secondary school for another two years. Others may enroll in a vocational school or non-university institute. Russian coursework focuses much more on math and science than humanities.

Estonia, Europe’s Education Powerhouse

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ALESSANDRO RAMPAZZO/AFP via Getty Images

In 2019, the BBC called Estonia “Europe’s newest education powerhouse.” In recent years, Estonia has risen through the ranks in science, math, and affordable education. While many countries separate primary and secondary education, Estonia offers schools where students can attend classes from age seven through age 16.

Estonia has also implemented e-schooling wherever they can. Homework and textbooks are offered online to streamline lessons. When Estonia separated from Russia, they borrowed many of Finland’s education practices, which may account for their growing success. A few of the world’s top universities reside in Estonia.

The United Kingdom’s Schools Can Improve

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David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s education ranking varies. On the one hand, a study by US News & World Report claimed that the UK has the best education worldwide. On the other hand, the OECD has not placed the country above number 14. Overall, though, the UK offers a high-quality education system.

Throughout the years, schools in the UK have only improved. Their international math test scores have risen significantly. However, students may not be satisfied with the experience. According to 2019 research, only one-third of UK students would describe themselves as happy–far lower than the 41% global average.

Europe Inspired Hong Kong’s Curriculum

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Edward Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

Over the past few years, Hong Kong has ranked highly within the World Top 20 Education Poll for primary, secondary, and tertiary schooling. Unlike much of Asia, Hong Kong’s schools are modeled after European classes. The city-state offers eight universities, with the University of Hong Kong being one of the most prestigious in Asia.

That said, public schools in Hong Kong have become notorious for placing pressure on students. They have also divided high school into junior and senior secondary schools. Classes are taught in Cantonese, and many students learn English during their later years.

New Zealand Schools Have A Positive Reputation

A student in New Zealand puts together legos to learn English grammar.
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Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

New Zealand’s schools have a positive reputation, especially their higher universities. New Zealand is the third-best country in the Educating for the Future ranking, and the best out of all English-speaking countries. It has consistently ranked high for three years in a row.

However, New Zealand’s education system is different from many other countries. Students attend secondary school from grades nine to 13, up to 19 years old. After age 16, school becomes optional. Beyond high school, most students prefer state schools, which are free to attend for residents.

Luxembourg Students Are Trilingual

Students work on laptops at the international school of Luxembourg.
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Although Luxembourg is a small country, it surpasses many other nations in education. Over 83% of residents have a high school education, which exceeds OECD’s worldwide average of 75%. Compared to other countries, Luxembourg pays its teachers a far higher salary for far higher standards.

Luxembourg’s education is trilingual. Students are required to learn German in primary school, French in secondary school, and Luxembourgish throughout. Its devotion to language-learning is the highest among all OECD countries. At least 40% of citizens have a college degree, and most achieve a master’s degree.

Spain Has Great Universities…If People Get There

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JAIME REINA/AFP via Getty Images

Spain has a great university system, and it ranked as the 11th best country for higher education in 2018. However, many Spaniards don’t go beyond high school. At least 35% of adults don’t have a high school education in Spain, which is double the OECD average.

In Spain, schools are run by the Ministry of Education, which requires education up through high school. Afterward, students have a choice to leave school, study for the Bachillerato to get into university, or take a vocational course through the Ciclo Formativo. Because higher education is not as expensive in Spain as in other countries, 37% of residents have a higher education.

Slovenia Prepares Its Students For Careers

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Michel BARET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The OECD has frequently praised Slovenia for its quality of education. Unlike other countries, professional training is offered to students early on. After seven years of primary schools, students are allowed to take two years of vocational training before secondary school. This prepares students for future careers even if they don’t graduate high school.

After completing vocational school, students move on to a three-year-old secondary school. Here, they learn more about a future career. Around 34% of students move on to a university in Slovenia.

The Exceptional Classes Of Ireland

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When it comes to higher education, Ireland ranks just behind the UK as a whole, says the OECD. Fifty-two percent of residents under 34 have a university or college degree, which is the second-highest rate in Europe. Subject-wise, Irish students rank highly in reading, math, science, and computing skills.

In Ireland, children are not required to attend school until age six, but many enter preschool before age four. Secondary school consists of a three-year junior period, followed by two to three senior years. Students may take a transitional period in between these periods if they wish.

Sweden’s Unconventional Teaching Methods

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THIBAULT SAVARY/AFP via Getty Images

People around the world have analyzed Sweden’s unconventional and successful education system. The World Population Review ranks Sweden as the tenth best education system in the world, while OECD places it in the top 20. So why do their unique teaching methods succeed?

Swedish students can choose which school they go to, at no cost to themselves. If they don’t like a public school, for instance, they can easily switch to a private school. Independent schools are popular in Sweden. These classrooms follow unconventional teaching techniques with an open-classroom layout.

Lithuania’s High Literacy Rate

Students sit in a humanities class in Lithuania.
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PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images

When Lithuanian citizens gained independence in 1991, they drastically changed their education system. This change has only benefited them. Lithuania has a high literacy rate–over 99%–and a high enrollment rate of 73%. Comprehensive schools teach kids from ages seven to 16, and then vocational schools are taken before higher education.

After completing their secondary education, most Lithuanian students attend vocational schools to prepare for careers. Although the country continues many Soviet methods of teaching, they also have changed many aspects. For instance, over 67% of students attend religious classes, and many learn a second language.

The Decentralized Schools Of Switzerland

A nine-year-old Switz student works at his classroom desk.
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FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Switzerland often ranks highly in education, landing the number one spot in the World Economic Forum. Unlike in other countries, Switz schools are mostly decentralized. The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) oversees 26 cantons (districts), but each canton can make their own decisions on how to teach students.

Most national and international schools in Switzerland are free. Compulsory education is required for nine to 11 years, although there is no age where children are expected to start. Homeschooling is uncommon in Switzerland; some cantons even have laws against it.

Many Students Are Bilingual In The Netherlands

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Rick Nederstigt/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Out of the 17 million residents of the Netherlands, 40% have a higher education degree. Many Dutch children begin school later than in other countries. By age twelve, students can choose between a four-year vocational education, a five-year general secondary education, or six-year university preparation classes.

The Netherlands also emphasizes foreign language classes; it has the highest amount of English-taught degree programs in all of Europe. Many primary schools are bilingual with both English and Dutch courses. The Netherlands also allows a large number of international students to attend their universities.

Danish Citizens Have Many Inexpensive Education Options

A Danish teacher speaks to her class.
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THIBAULT SAVARY/AFP via Getty Images

According to the Universitas 21 Ranking, Denmark has the third-best education system in the world. Most of the country’s schools are tax-financed and free to attend. In primary school, teachers avoid class rankings and formal tests. Instead, they focus on teamwork and problem-solving.

After high school, one-third of Danish residents continue their education through some kind of coursework. Although Danes have to pay for a university degree, their government provides many scholarships and income aid. Many “for fun” classes are offered for free or a small fee, such as cooking, music, painting, or foreign languages.

Israel Values Quantity Over Quality

Israeli students work on a booklet together during primary school.
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AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

The OECD ranks Israel as the third most educated country, with over 50% of citizens receiving tertiary education. Several Israeli universities are ranked as the highest in the world. However, the curriculum in Israel differs slightly between Arab, Orthodox Jewish, and secular Jewish schools.

Although Israeli students study for a long time, some studies argue that the quality of education is low. A study in 2007 stated that Israel has the lowest productivity levels and highest poverty rates in the developed world. Plus, Israel requires two years of army training, which interrupts some peoples’ education.

Students Have Many Choices In Belgium

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In 2016, Belgium became the third-best education system in the world, according to the OECD. The country consistently ranks above average compared to the rest of the European Union. In high school, students choose between education focuses: art, professional, technical, and preparing for university.

Belgium has a vast array of schooling styles between the Dutch-, French-, and German-speaking communities, with many schools being bilingual. It can also be divided between state schools and Catholic schools. Because of the wide variety, Belgium has a few different curriculums that students can learn.

Singapore Focuses On Problem-Solving

Students study in a library at a university in Singapore.
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Hufton+Crow/View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Singapore’s schools are some of the best in the world, and they have remained in the OECD’s top ten for years. The country’s curriculum focuses on problem-solving skills that adults use in life, especially in math and sciences. Plus, Singapore’s government is continually working to improve its education system.

As in South Korea, education is essential for Singapore’s economy. Some have proposed that the culture, which emphasizes knowledge, also plays a role in their success. Plus, the government invested a lot of money into Singapore’s teaching force, which resulted in many high-quality instructors.

Australia Spends A Lot On Education

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WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images

Australia spends more money on its education system than most other countries. As a result, their schools have gained a positive reputation. Australia teaches the third-largest number of international students in the world, from primary schools to universities. Within the country, 45% of residents complete higher education.

Because every Australian state manages its own curriculum, not every school is the same. Schools can be divided into government schools (also called public schools), Catholic schools, and private schools. Every school offers a wide variety of subjects–over 22,000 classes–for national and international students to choose from.

Polish Classes Do Not Discriminate

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JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Since Poland became free from the education-suppressed communist regime, its schools have grown rapidly. Its international universities have become some of the best worldwide, and high schoolers score well on exams. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Poland outranks many other European countries in education.

Unlike other countries, Poland has relatively equal scores between genders. While girls perform less well in science and math in other countries, in Poland, average scores are the same. Polish schools often allow primary and secondary students to intermingle, and they motivate their classes with consistent, standardized tests.

All The Student Perks In Norway

A teacher speaks to a class of third-graders in Norway.
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HEIKO JUNGE/NTB Scanpix/AFP via Getty Images

In 1997, the Norwegian government altered its primary and lower secondary education systems. The results have only advanced the country. As of 2020, 40% of Norwegian citizens have high education. Their international schools have also gained more attention throughout the years.

Every Norwegian child from ages six to 16 has to attend school. The government has adequately funded many classrooms; for instance, some schools lend free laptops to their students. Upper secondary school is separate from lower secondary school, and students have to take a test to get into an upper secondary school.

Icelandic Students Take Their Time

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Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

In a 2016 study, researchers claimed that Iceland is the third most literate country in the world. The small island country takes education seriously, and compulsory school lasts longer than other countries. Compulsory education is required until age 16, and upper secondary education lasts until age 20. Only then can students apply for university.

Despite the extra time required for university, over 42% of Icelandic residents have a college degree. Universities have admissions fees, but not tuition. Homeschooling is not permitted in Iceland, so every student receives the same education.

How Taiwan’s Educational Reforms Helped

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SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, the Ministry of Education in Taiwan implemented many reforms to their schools. These changes place less emphasis on testing and accommodated students from disadvantaged homes. These reforms significantly improved Taiwan’s education. According to the OECD, 46% of Taiwanese citizens receive a higher education, compared to the 36% global average.

One of Taiwan’s most influential changes was made by loosening its strict curriculum. They now offer “exam-free” pathways for secondary students. For students who don’t learn well from testing, this new education system works wonders. However, Taiwan’s education ranking may decline as their population decreases.

Austria’s Schools Are Rapidly Improving

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LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

Although Austria’s education system is not as advanced as other countries, it is still quite good. Many schools offer different curricula, and 90% of Austrian students learn a second language. Because of gender gaps in education, the government has worked to offer equal opportunity for everyone.

Secondary education in Austria prepares students for professions. When students enter grade nine, they attend a polytechnical school that will prepare students for apprenticeships, vocational schools, or higher education. Apprenticeships are widespread and typically last for three to four years.

Despite Low Funding, Latvia Does Well

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Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Since the 1990s, Latvia’s education has only improved, says OECD. Although their education spending is lower than in many countries, they still manage to excel. The government places great emphasis on schooling and makes many universities affordable.

That said, Latvia has a ways to go in terms of equity. According to a 2012 PISA study, urban students outperformed rural students significantly. Many schools also teach Russian or English depending on the region. Over 33% of students attend university, and Latvia’s continual reforms are working to get more citizens through college.