New Zealand's education system has been ranked top of the world in "educating for the future".

The new ranking, produced for the first time by the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, measures the extent to which young people in 35 countries learn six kinds of skills that are more about using information than rote-learning.

Despite frequent complaints by employers about the education system, Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope agreed that New Zealand justified first place.

"These kids might not be coming in [to work] with the soft skills that you'd expect, but this report says we are not doing it any worse than anyone else and are doing it better than many," he said.

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The report says "content knowledge is becoming a commodity" - now valued less than knowing how to use information.

It says the six key skills needed to "flourish" are:

• Interdisciplinary skills;

• Creative and analytical skills;

• Entrepreneurial skills;

• Leadership skills;

• Digital and technical skills; and

• Global awareness and civic education.

"The index highlights a widespread need for holistic educational techniques such as project-based learning, where students grapple with a subject (often of their own choosing) in great depth and with reference to several academic disciplines," it says.

It says equipping young people to face future challenges also requires involvement from business and a free and open society.

"Those who are encouraged to develop independent thought while being willing to take risks will flourish more than those from rigid or controlled societies," it says.

East Asian countries which score well in content knowledge are marked down in the report because "they only measure a far narrower range of traditional performance than in a future-skills framework involving project-based learning".

New Zealand is marked highly for focusing on "future skills" and project-based learning in its school curriculum and teacher training, and for its careers counselling, collaboration between universities and industry, and the country's cultural diversity and tolerance.

Our Government spending on post-secondary education is proportionately the highest of the 35 countries at 4.2 per cent of national income - a figure which appears to include student loans.

However our average high-school teacher salaries are only 19th highest, at US$34,881 ($48,158), measured in terms of what a dollar will actually buy in each country.

Hope said his school visits confirmed that almost all NZ schools use project-based learning, using state-funded broadband to let teachers merely facilitate while students do their own research online.

However he said these self-directed learning skills were not well assessed.

"We'd probably argue that there is too much emphasis on assessment, and in particular on certain types of assessment, and not enough assessment of some of the key drivers of the workforce for the future such as critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration."

He said schools "could do much better" on career counselling and links with local employers.

"One of the ways we could do that is professionalisation of career services, as suggested in Labour's [election] policy," he said.

Post Primary Teachers Association president Jack Boyle said the report showed that New Zealand had "a highly performing public education system" and a project-based curriculum that was "ahead of the game".

Educating for the Future index - Top 10

1. New Zealand 88.9

2. Canada 86.7

3. Finland 85.5

4. Switzerland 81.5

5. Singapore 80.1

6. Britain 79.5

7. Japan 77.2

8. Australia 77.1

9. Netherlands 76.2

10. Germany 75.3

Source: educatingforthefuture.economist.com