What we can learn from McKinsey about education systems?


Some mice held a meeting to decide how to outwit the cat. A mouse got up and said he had a proposal that would change everything. ‘What if we could attach a small bell round the cat’s neck?’ Everyone agreed it was an excellent idea. Then another mouse said: ‘But who is to bell the cat…?’ No one spoke. After a long silence, she continued: ‘It’s easy to propose grand solutions.’

Aesop, around 600 BC


McKinsey research shows what works in system reform: getting good teachers.

Over the last decade, McKinsey have invested in a big idea. The $7billion strategy consultancy has been researching what works globally in improving education systems. Above all – above class sizes, above investment, above technology – it turns out that what matters most in becoming one of the best school systems in the world is getting and keeping good teachers. In 10 years of research in over 50 countries, they have never seen an education system achieve or sustain world-class status without top talent in its teaching profession.

In a 2007 report, McKinsey identified the best performing education systems based on international data as primarily Finland, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Ontario, Canada. From extensive analysis of the common factors in each system, McKinsey concluded that three things matter most:

  • Get the right people to become teachers.
  • No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers
  • Develop teachers to become effective instructors.
  • The only way to improve outcomes is to improve instruction.
  • Ensure every child succeeds.
  • Achieving universally high outcomes is only possible by putting in place mechanisms, systems and targeted support to ensure that schools deliver high quality instruction to every student.

The research shows that of all the controllable factors influencing student achievement, the most important by far is the effectiveness of the classroom teacher. Whilst they are many differences between the world’s top performing education systems, they also share common practices that make teaching appealing to top students.

For example, Singapore accept only 1 in 8 applicants for teacher training, who must as a prerequisite fall within the top 30% of the academic cohort based on grades, national exams and the teacher entrance proficiency exam.  All teachers have time each week for professional collaboration and receive 100 hours of paid professional development each year. Teacher turnover is just 3% a year. “It is a no-brainer that a nation would want to have a top-quality teaching force,” Sing Kong Lee, Director of Singapore’s National Institute of Education, told McKinsey. “To get there, you have to do two things. First, attract the best people to the profession. Second, once they’re in, you give them the best training.”

McKinsey’s evidence, based on interviews with over 100 experts, policymakers and practitioners worldwide, revealed the best practices for improving selection and training:


  • Make admissions to rigorous teacher training programs highly selective
  • Develop effective processes for selecting the right candidates
  • Pay good starting salaries
  • Improve the status of the profession and bestow social prestige on teaching


  • Define what great instruction looks like through curriculum and pedagogy
  • Give teachers the capacity and knowledge to deliver great instruction
  • Build practical skills during initial training
  • Pay teachers a salary while training
  • Get good coaches in schools to support new teachers
  • Select and develop good instructional leaders, and focus their time on instruction
  • Enable teachers to learn from each other

For instance, Finland’s school system is so strong that the bottom 10% of schools outperform the OECD median. When asked to explain this success, an official at the National Board of Education put it plainly: “three words…teachers, teachers, teachers.” Applicants are drawn from the top 20 percent of graduates; only about 1 in 10 applicants is accepted to become a teacher. They are required to get a Masters degree within 5 years, and teacher turnover is just 1%. ‘We trust our teachers’ runs the Finnish refrain, according to McKinsey.

The table below shows the indicators of a world-class school system:


Another example is South Korea. They pay teachers the highest salary in the world in proportion to GDP, and place great emphasis on selectivity of admissions. In particular, primary school teachers are recruited from the top 5% of the academic cohort by grades and the National College entrance exam. Turnover of teachers is just 1% annually.

So the best school systems have raised the prestige of teaching so much that they get as many as 10 applicants per place (in England it is just 2). McKinsey’s 2007 research raised questions that were responded to in a 2010 report. This report identified a small number of critical factors to get from a good to a great education system:

  • Raise the calibre of entering teachers and principals
  • Raise the calibre of existing teachers and principals
  • Revise curriculum, standards, assessment and data systems

The key insight – that nothing matters more than good teachers – is striking in its clarity. It’s also the insight on which the successful Teach First program was built.

But I tend to find that McKinsey’s research raises more questions than it answers. Anyone can suggest bold remedies that are easier said than done. Just like Aesop’s fable of the mouse’s idea to bell the cat, although McKinsey’s research is a good start, it still leaves a lot unanswered. These are questions I am posting on over the coming months:

The McKinsey 2007 and 2010 reports are below:

How do the world’s best performing school systems come out on top?

Why do some school systems consistently improve faster than others?


About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to What we can learn from McKinsey about education systems?

  1. Paul says:

    Interesting article. Thanks.

    Three comments.

    Firstly, I was under the impression that Teach First did not produce better quality teachers than other routes. I haven’t seen any research, just idle comments from university tutors. If this is true there are question marks over whether raising entrance requirements for the teaching profession does lead to a corresponding rise in pupil attainment.

    Secondly, a maths tutor at the IoE argued that Finland’s exalted position as a leading education system is rarely questioned, and perhaps unmerited. He showed us videos of a Finnish classroom and the teaching was good but not inspiring. His argument was this. Just as schools in the UK become very good at meeting the criteria required for national tests, necessarily some school systems internationally are going to fit very closely with the set of skills required to to well in international tests. The implication here isn’t that Finnish education maestros doctor their education systems to come out top of international tests. Rather, certain styles of testing will suit students from some countries better than others.

    Seen another way, Finnish students might come and sit GCSEs in the UK and do less well because there is an emphasis on different skills, topics and exam layouts.

    What is it about the Finnish (and South Korean, and Singaporean, and Ontarian) system which is better than the UK system? Exactly which outcomes are better? If it is just that they do better in international comparison tests (e.g. PISA) then we should rightfully be sceptical. Perhaps there is more though?

    Finally, how do we control for other complex social factors? A quick wikipedia finds that 2.7% of the Finnish population were born elsewhere. 2% of South Koreans were born elsewhere. In the UK that figure is 11.3%. This brings with it a host of complex social and educational problems that I’m sure you’re well aware of. I teach a class where noone speaks English. That must be an awfully rare thing in South Korea or Finland.

    As such there needs to be some VALUE ADDED appreciation in international measurements. Absolute literacy rates (for example) cannot tell you how well a system copes with the demands upon it.

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