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The Most Holistic Education Systems In the World 

In this article, I wanted to examine some of the most unique and holistic education systems from around the world that didn’t quite make the cut for our article on the top-performing education systems of the world. That being said, if you have not read our article on the top-performing articles, I recommend you read that article first. 

Norway has an average PISA score of 496, with a reading score of 499, a math score of 501, and a science score of 490. Norway ranked 23rd, in the world on the 2018 PISA. Norway spends on average $13 000 USD per student or what equates to 30% of their GDP and has an efficiency score of 26. Initially, I was surprised that Norway did not perform higher on the PISA test. I have read many education systems rankings that place Norway as the number 1 education system in the world. One reason that Norway might be so often cited as the best education system, is the fact that it is such a unique education system. 

The Norway education system appears to teach radically differently across its different divisions. In the early primary division which includes pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and grade 1, teachers only instruct students in English, Math, Phys-ed, and social skills. Moreover, during the primary years, teachers primarily teach through games and activities. During the primary years of education, there are also no formal grades given to students. 

During grades 2-7, Norweigan students are introduced to more subjects; however, they are given no formal grades, no standardized tests, and minimal homework. It is this aspect of their education system that likely makes them so popular. During grades 8-10, students not only begin to receive grades, but they must get good grades to go to the upper secondary schools of their choice. 

While Norway’s low-stress elementary school system is often cited as the reason their students do so well on standardized tests, however, I do not think that we can ignore the fact that their lower secondary school level is much higher stress than most other countries. It is also important to note that it is in lower-secondary schools, in which students must start taking standardized tests. It is entirely possible that the high-stress secondary school system is the causation of Norway's high performance on standardized tests. During grades 11-13, participation is no longer mandatory. However, teachers who want to teach at this level must have a minimum of a master’s degree to teach at this level. 

Interestingly Norway has almost completely banned private schools. Until very recently, they were not allowed at all, whereas now they are allowed for specific philosophic or religious reasons. This would suggest that there is less economic interest for the wealthiest individuals of the country to de-fund public education. As the students of the wealthy and powerful must attend the same schools as everyone else, they are directly incentivized to campaign for a well funded public education system. 

If we are examining the Norweigan system from a cost-benefit analysis, they clearly do not have a cost-effective education system. However, that does not mean there is nothing positive we can glean from their education system. At the end of the day, Norway has one of the least stressful education systems and one of the highest performing ones. Their model might suggest that primary education does not have to be high-stress for students to attain high-results, later on in life. 

Belgium had an average PISA score of 500, ranking 20th in the world, with a reading score of 493, a math score of 508, and a science score of 499. Belgium spends 5.8% of their GDP on education, which works out to an average of $13 000 USD per student. Belgium has an efficiency metric of 26.  Belgium has a slightly more cost-effective education system than Norway while providing higher results. Belgium also provides some interesting socialized programming that would make most other western nations jealous including socialized day-care and post-secondary education. 

One point of particular interest in Belgium is that school is mandatory until the age of 18. This is much higher than the average OECD country, let alone the country overall. Belgium also presents a model of education that seems extremely focused on economic equity. There are no mandatory education zones. Students can attend any school they like. This is particularly important when we consider some countries fund their education systems partially through municipal taxes, meaning that poor neighborhoods get lower quality schools than rich ones. 

Belgium also has one of the most interesting trade systems in the world. Students can take trades oriented courses, from the age of 12 till they are 18 and unlike most other education systems, students who take vocational level courses in secondary are still eligible for post-secondary education. While the Belgium education system is not the most economically efficient, or highest performing, it is definitely one of the most democratic.


The Netherlands has an average 2018 PISA score of 502, making them rank 16th in the world. They have a reading score of 487, a math score of 519, and a science score of 503. The Netherlands spends 5.47% of their GDP, which equates to about $9000 USD per student. These spending amounts and PISA scores, give the Netherlands an efficiency metric of 17.9 meaning they are incredibly economically efficient, with their education spending. The Netherlands, like Belgium, has a very democratic model of education; however, it is both economically more efficient and has higher academic results. Like Norway, private schools in the Netherlands are banned, unless they have a specific philosophical or religious reason for existing. However, even if a student goes to a private school, their education is still 100% publicly funded. This means that there is less economic incentive to de-fund public education in the Netherlands. 

Interestingly, the Netherlands also allow their students to change academic streams in secondary school at any time. Meaning that a student could take vocational level courses, until their final year of secondary school, switch to the academic stream, and graduate at an academic level. This is in sharp contrast to most education systems, which would force the student to go back to the beginning of secondary school if they wanted to switch streams. This makes it much less punishing if a student decides to alter their career plans partway through secondary school. The Netherlands also allows students to enter any stream, regardless of their grades; however, students are recommended by their teachers to a specific grade. Interestingly, though this practice of teachers recommending students, has come under recent scrutiny, with the realization that many gifted students end up in the vocational stream.


Australia is ranked 21 in the world and has an average PISA score of 498, with a reading score of 503, a math score of 491, and a science score of 503. Australia spends 5.1% of their GDP or an average of $30 000 USD per student. These metrics give Australia an efficiency score of 60, making it the least economically efficient model of education that I have looked at. Australia has one of the most expensive education systems in the world. That being said Australia does have an interesting model of education. Their secondary and post-secondary education is paired together and is highly organized. Students can choose specific course routes in secondary school, linked to specific careers. In fact, these routes are often developed in coordination with industry leaders, allowing students to do career-related co-op placements, which match their in school coursework. With this system, students are allowed to earn specific accreditations in a variety of trades and industries starting in secondary school and extending into their post-secondary education, with up to 6 different accreditation levels in total. 

While Australia’s education system is very expensive, it might be the education system in the world, most integrated with the workforce, allowing their students to be well prepared for the workforce, when they graduate, regardless of the career path they choose. Moreover, similarly to Belgium, it might have one of the best trades/vocational schooling systems in the world.

General Conclusions:

I have said it before and I am going to say it again, it is very difficult to make any meaningful conclusions from this type of data. All we can attempt to do is generate hypotheses and extrapolations. That being said, the above education systems, represent some of the most low-stress process-based education systems in the world. While advocates of these types of education policies would argue that these pedagogies increase learning, it is hard not to notice that these education systems are not competitive with the most product-based education systems in the world in terms of their PISA ranking. Moreover, all of these countries have slipped quite a bit in terms of their PISA rankings over the past 10 years. In fact, all of these countries were previously in the top 12 PISA ranked countries in 2010. That being said, all of these countries are relatively strong education systems within the top 23 education systems of the world, according to international standardized testing. While these countries might not be a model of the highest performing education systems, they might be a potential model of how to balance the holistic needs of students with academic achievement. 

Written by,

Nathaniel Hansford 5/14/2020


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