The British public services that are actually working well

UK public services have slipped in some global performance tables, but Britain still performs strongly in others

Union Jack illustration
Areas within healthcare, education and scientific research are performing strongly
(Image credit: Illustrated/Getty Images)

The crumbling concrete crisis has been described as the “tip of the iceberg” for the country’s schools.

Nearly 150 educational buildings were closed days before the start of the school term, but in The Times, Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said hundreds of thousands of pupils were being educated in generally “substandard buildings”.

Experts have warned that the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) issue may extend beyond the education sector, while others have gone further in criticising the government neglect of public services, from healthcare waiting lists to transport delays and cuts in staff.

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Yet amid all the gloom, many British public services continue to match or outperform their European and US counterparts, including aspects of the country’s healthcare, education, defence, and scientific and technological research.


The NHS is often praised for providing universal healthcare coverage to UK citizens, but the service also faces extensive challenges, including long waiting times, staff shortages, and ballooning bureaucracy and administrative costs.

Criticism of the service remains extremely high. Between 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and 2021, the King’s Fund think tank measured the largest decline in the overall satisfaction rate with the NHS since the 1990s.

However, it continues to rank highly on global performance charts, producing notably better outcomes than many developed countries’ healthcare systems.

According to the latest report by the US-based foundation the Commonwealth Fund, which analyses the healthcare systems of 11 developed countries every few years, the UK ranked fourth out of 11, putting it behind only Norway, the Netherlands and Australia. Meanwhile, the US had an overall ranking of 11 out of the 11 countries included in the analysis.

Despite the strong performance the findings were “a blow to the NHS”, said The Guardian, given it had been “the top-rated system in the think tank’s two previous reports in 2017 and 2014”.


In 2019, a tweet claiming the UK was the best country for education was shared by hundreds of people, including the then children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi and a British ambassador.

The data came from a survey conducted by media company US News & World Report, consultancy BAV Group, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. However, as fact-checking website Full Fact noted the tweet was “based on data that measures public perception of different educational systems” which is “not good data for objectively ranking education systems”.

Nevertheless, while many experts say the UK’s education system is probably not the best in the world, it does perform strongly according to numerous measures. A Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) published this year found that children in England were better at reading than anywhere else in Europe or the US.

The UK’s higher-education system also ranked third out of 50 countries assessed by researchers from the University of Melbourne, which took into account a number of measures including attainment, diversity, spending and employment among graduates.


In January, a senior US general privately told former defence secretary Ben Wallace that the British Army was no longer regarded as a top-level fighting force due to decades of cuts to save money.

Yet according to an analysis by Global Firepower, which ranks 145 countries’ military strength, the UK’s military remains the fifth most potent fighting force in the world.

Global Firepower weighs up a host of different factors including the sophistication of each country’s equipment, its finances, geography, and resources.

The site said the UK’s position was boosted by its strengths in manpower, air power, nuclear weaponry, and its strong financial position.

“It is also one of the few powers to operate more than one aircraft carrier,” the site added, noting that UK carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, are among the newest in the world.

Science and technology

The government regularly boasts of being a “global leader” in science and technology with UK Research and Innovation, the national funding agency, crowing about the UK’s “global leadership in transformative technologies”.

According to science writer Anjana Ahuja, however, “the assertion that the UK is world-beating at science and technology is often repeated but rarely questioned.”

The truth is that “British science is undergoing a major reset, prompted by factors including Brexit and declining productivity”, Ahuja wrote in the Financial Times. But while the UK’s reputation is “inflated by historic successes”, we remain “good” in global terms, Ahuja concludes, just “not outstanding”.

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.