In the UK we ranked statistically equal with Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, and Portugal.
The USA came 36th.
So obviously the Asians are doing something right in their schools and we are doing something wrong!
At least that's what the media are saying.
But before we slink off in disgrace perhaps we should have a little look behind the numbers.
Check out this graph of pupils in UK state schools who do not have English as a first language.
Percentage of foreign pupils
You might need to click on it to make out the small print, but what it says is that in 1997 less than 8% of pupils did not have English as a mother tongue and this year (2013) it is more than 18%.
Due to immigration we have seen a massive rise in non-English-speaking students in our schools. There are about 9 million children in our state schools and slightly over one and a half million of them do not have English as a first language.
The Asian countries do not take immigrants in anything other than trivial numbers. They simply do not have a statistically significant number of students who do not speak the mother tongue.
Next consider teacher-contact time. In the UK a six-hour school day is the norm. In South Korea 12 to 13 hours is not unusual, including children going home for lunch and then back to school, then home for supper and then back to school in the evening. These children are getting double the effort put into them per day. They also have a longer academic year than in the UK, 38 weeks per year to our 30 week year.
As an aside it is worth considering what all this pressure is doing to the school children. The under-15 suicide rate in the UK is 0.04%. In South Korea it is 0.54%. That is a staggering 13.5 times higher! (Source) In fact all these "successful" Asian countries have very high child suicide rates. In Japan it is 0.32%, Hong Kong 0.51% and Singapore 0.31%.