By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent
The UK is in second place among European countries and sixth overall in a global education league table.
South Korea is highest rated, with a cluster of Asian countries taking the top four places, in rankings from education and publishing firm, Pearson.
The rankings include higher education as well as international school tests – which boosted the UK’s position.
Pearson chief executive John Fallon highlighted the economic importance of improving education and skills.
These latest international comparisons, compiled for Pearson by the Economist Intelligence Unit, emphasise the success of Asian education systems, with South Korea, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong in China rated as the highest performing.
But it shows a strong performance from the UK, which is ranked sixth, behind only Finland in Europe and ahead of countries such as Germany, France and the United States.
Finns no longer flying
Finland, which was previously in first place, has slumped to fifth, reflecting a downward trend for a number of Scandinavian countries.
It also records the rise of Poland, which has been hailed for reforming its post-Communist education system, and sits in the top 10.
These rankings are based upon an amalgamation of international tests and education data – including the OECD’s Pisa tests, and two major US-based studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls).
They also include higher-education graduation rates, which helped the UK to a much higher position than in Pisa tests, which saw the UK failing to make the top 20.
A Learning Curve report accompanying the ranking says that the success of top-performing Asian countries reflects a culture in which teachers and schools are highly respected and “teachers, students and parents all take responsibility for education”.
Students in South Korea, with the strongest test results, will have had to memorise 60 to 100 pages of facts, says the report, raising questions about the long-term value of such rote learning.
But the report also notes that highly-prized skills such as being creative and problem solving are much harder to measure and put into such rankings.
The lowest-ranked European country is Greece, with a group of emerging economies at the bottom of the table, including Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil.
John Fallon, chief executive of Pearson, says the report shows a strong link between improving levels of education and training and economic growth.
And the international comparisons, such as with the top Asian education systems, show the potential for what could be achieved in other countries.
Healthcare has benefited from a globalised approach, he says, such as developing and testing medicines.
And education systems around the world could learn more from each other, he argues, when many face the same challenge of raising standards while facing financial constraints.
“How do we do more or better with the same or less resources?”
More than $5 trillion (£2.95 trillion) is spent on education globally each year, he says, but there is pressure to target this more effectively and see what really worked.
Digital technology could play a part in sharing good ideas, but this will mean reinforcing rather than displacing the role of the teacher.
Mr Fallon says it would be a “huge mistake” to think of the role of teacher being lessened by an increasing use of technology.
Pearson has also created an open-access information hub, with a databank of education information for 50 countries.
So far, the education community is only at the stage of “dipping its toe” in applying the lessons of international data and research, says Mr Fallon.
“There is a huge amount of innovation in schools and colleges around the world. And the biggest challenge isn’t finding brilliant teachers or high-performing schools – it’s how to share that, and how you replicate that at scale.”
Where Pisa test results are very high, he says, “our job is how to replicate this”.
But he says globalisation will have limits and that education systems will always have a strong national and local identity – shaped by “community, culture and language”.
Sir Michael Barber, a former Downing Street adviser, who is now Pearson’s education adviser, says the rankings and report provide “an ever-deeper knowledge base about precisely how education systems improve themselves”.
“The rise of Pacific Asian countries, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited “smartness”, is a phenomenon that other countries can no longer ignore.”