There is an old gospel song called "He's Got The Whole World In His Hands". If that phrase was attached to anybody in education, it would be Andreas Schleicher, the softly spoken head of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every year he and his team compile the most comprehensive set of statistics analysing world education systems and how effectively they perform.
Governments – in particular the current Coalition – await his findings with baited breath. It is probably no exaggeration to say that many think their futures could hinge on them.
Indeed, the only caveat that I would add about his research is the decision to call it Education At A Glance. It runs to 497 pages this year, studded with statistics and references to at least as much material again, which can be accessed online.
He is a busy man during the week of the launch of the statistics. Indeed last Monday morning he was explaining their significance to the UK to a well-attended media briefing. This was followed by a personal audience with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, before appearing on a live online link to the United States to reveal its findings. The following day he was back in his native Germany for a joint presentation with that country's Education Minister.
In between briefing Mr Gove and appearing live in the US, Mr Schleicher managed to squeeze in an interview with The Independent, which was quite revealing in terms of the advice he gave to the Coalition. The UK had a particular problem with "coasting" schools – those whose performance, he argued, was just "so-so". They could be in affluent areas of the country and be just ticking along.
The answer, he indicated, was to take a leaf out of Shanghai's book, where they had a particularly good record in erasing the problem. They had twinned them with more successful schools in the same neighbourhood. "They [coasting schools] can do well, yet they do just so-so," says Mr Schleicher.
He adds that the criticism could be made of both private and state schools. "There has been a change of emphasis by this (the Coalition) Government giving schools more discretion – yet what are the levers for these schools? What are you going to do about them?"
He says that intervention to help them improve their standards is essential. In Shanghai – now the top-performing area of the world, according to international tests – so-called "coasting" schools have improved beyond recognition as a result of the partnerships with neighbouring top-performing schools. "It has had a fantastic effect," he says. "The variability in results between schools has been halved as a result."
He may be on to a winner with this advice. Linking schools with top-performing neighbours is a recipe that is being pursued by ministers for failing and under-performing schools in the UK that serve disadvantaged areas. Those heads who fail to reach minimum targets in GCSE results face having their schools "twinned" with a neighbour.
However, last week the Prime Minister David Cameron said the Government would be highlighting the performance of "coasting" schools as one of its next priorities. It would be easier for parents to identify them as a result of new measures being included in Government exam league tables, Mr Cameron argued. Parents would be able to compare their performance with schools with a similar profile in terms of their pupils' backgrounds.
With Mr Schleicher's standing at least in Mr Gove's eyes being so high, it is easy to see the UK accepting his advice. He has been described by the Education Secretary as "the most important man in English education – because Andreas is responsible for collating the data that shows which nations have the best-performing education systems".
In addition to his hectic schedule publicising his report, Mr Schleicher also visits most of the countries surveyed to give him more insight into how the world's education systems are faring. He reckons he has spent 26 per cent of his working time travelling in the past year. That, he has told aides, is not too bad – he can work on aircraft. In the past, the figure has been as high as 37 per cent.
What began as a fairly esoteric research document when he first arrived at the OECD in 1994 is now a "must read" for those with influence in running schools, colleges and universities. This year its message for the UK was to warn of the gap in life chances between those who were degree holders and those who left school without top-level qualifications. The earnings gap throughout a lifetime was $207,000 (£132,000) and those with less than five A* to C grade passes at GCSE were more harshly hit by the recession in the UK than in most other parts of the world.
He also strayed into the territory of the debate on immigration, with statistics showing that migrants who started off by studying in the UK and then stayed on were better educated than UK-born residents – 34.4 per cent of them were degree holders, 4.9 per cent higher than the figure for the rest of the population. They were, he argued, of net benefit to our society – a factor he believes is too often forgotten in the political debate on immigration.
He also seeks to dispel what he believes is the myth that private schools do better for their pupils than state schools. "When you take out the social background factor, private schools don't do well," he said. "We don't see much difference."
Mr Schleicher puts the growing interest in his annual research document down to global competitiveness. "It is no longer good enough just to show how you have improved as a nation," he said. "You have to show how you have improved in comparison with everyone else."
The UK is an example here. Figures show a massive rise in education spending in the eight years up to 2008 – so much so that the average secondary school class size has fallen to 19.6 pupils per class, the biggest drop of any OECD country (there are 30 included in this year's survey).
However, in terms of spending, the UK still spends less of its gross domestic product on education than the average for the OECD. "The UK is not a big spender in terms of its GDP, but it is a country that has seen a big rise," Mr Schleicher says.
He anticipates it will take a couple of years, though, before his analysis will be able to measure the success or otherwise of the Coalition Government's education policies. One factor will emerge sooner, though, he adds: whether the decision to raise tuition fees to up to £9,000 is having an impact on higher education recruitment. "I don't know how it is going to play, but the strategy that is behind this is good and right. It has been implemented in a very short space of time, though," Mr Schleicher says.
He says it is a form of "graduate tax" in that graduates are expected to contribute more to the cost of their education. It's a global trend, he adds. "Everybody knows we need more people going into higher education," he adds. Yet finance is squeezed and countries have to look to alternative methods to raise finance for higher education.
Andreas Schleicher was born in Hamburg, Germany, in July 1964. He is married with three children. He studied physics at the University of Hamburg, graduating in 1988, and went on to win a Master of Science award at Deakin University in Australia in 1992.
After leaving Deakin, he became director of analysis at the International Association for Educational achievement based in the Netherlands before joining the OECD in 1994. He has travelled a long way since then – both in terms of air miles and in the prestige he has been able to invest in the OECD's education publications.
Education at a glance – the main messages for the uk
*UK adults without top-level qualifications (five A* to C grade passes at GCSE) are amongst the most vulnerable in the world when it comes to finding jobs in the recession.
*Figures show the employment rate among 15- to 29-year-olds without this level of qualification was 56.9 per cent in 2009 – 8.7 percentage points lower than in 2008. This drop is four times higher than the international average.
*The UK still lags behind the rest of the world in persuading young people to stay on in full-time education or training after the school leaving age of 16. The statistics show that 25 of the 30 countries in the survey had higher rates of 15- to 19-year-olds in education and 27 had a higher rate of 20- to 29-year-olds in education.
*Migrants who come to live in the UK are better qualified and hold down better paid jobs on average than those born in the UK. The figures show 34.4 per cent of them hold a degree or its equivalent – 4.9 percentage points more than that for the rest of the population.
*The UK already has the third highest student fee levels in the world, with the present tuition fee of £3,400. Only the US and Korea charge higher fees. Next year fees will go up to as much as £9,000 a year.
*The overall share of the public spending cake that goes towards education in the UK is lower than the international average – 5.7 per cent compared with an average of 5.9 per cent.
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