Pupils in England start school two years before their Scandinavian counterparts
Primary school education in England is radically different from Finland and Denmark, shows a report from the Office for Standards in Education.
And it highlights how children in Finland start school two years later than in England, but then outperform their English counterparts when they reach secondary level.
The three countries all have successful primary school systems, according to international surveys of literacy and numeracy - with English 10 year olds recently achieving third place in an international league table.
Finland and Denmark have been considered as longstanding examples of high investment and high standards - and this report remarks on the small class sizes in Finland and the "exceptional" quality of classroom furniture and equipment.
English, Danish and Finnish six year olds
English more advanced with reading and writing
Danish and Finnish do not have to start school until aged seven
Maximum class size: Finland 20, England 30
Finnish and Danish schools little testing
English curriculum much more regulated
Finnish pupils best at concentrating
Bad behaviour bigger issue in English schools
English schools concentrate on academic performance
Finnish and Danish schools encourage social development
Finnish classroom furniture and equipment is "exceptional"
But the study from the education watchdog, Ofsted, looking at six year olds in the three countries, shows how success has been achieved in very different ways.
The report refuses to draw any conclusions about which approach is better - but it highlights how the English system is much more highly regulated than the two Scandinavian countries.
The biggest difference, says the report, is the age at which compulsory education begins - five in England and seven in Finland and Denmark.
There are pre-school and kindergarten classes in the two Scandinavian countries - used on a voluntary basis by a very high proportion of children.
But the study found that "much more is expected of English six year olds in reading, writing and mathematics".
This puts them ahead of those in the other two countries for learning - but the report also says that English pupils are less confident in speaking.
While the emphasis in English schools is on an academic curriculum, six year olds in Finland and Denmark are encouraged in their "social, physical and moral development".
There have been disputes in England over the use of tests for seven and 11 year olds - and the Scandinavian systems are much less regulated, with "virtually no national testing or performance targets".
They also allow greater autonomy for teachers over how they plan their lessons.
The report also draws attention to the different social attitudes towards education - with pupil misbehaviour much more of an issue in England.
"Danish and Finnish teachers were not as preoccupied with discipline and control as those in England, due to the freely co-operative behaviour of most of their pupils".
There was also perceived to be much greater consensus among the Scandinavian parents about supporting schools.
The report also looked at the environment in which pupils were taught. The English classrooms tended to be smaller and more overcrowded - and with less attention to design.
The Finnish pre-schools and kindergartens in the study had an average class size of 12.5 pupils - and the report writes admiringly of the "visually-pleasing" and ergonomically-designed classroom furniture.
But the English schools were seen as making imaginative use of the space available, more likely to use the walls to show children's work and to separate the classroom in activity areas.
As to why pupils in Finland should prove to be more successful as they go into secondary school, the report gives several clues.
The study comments on the way that Finnish pupils seem to be able to concentrate much longer than their English counterparts - in an atmosphere of "voluntary calm".
There are also signs of strong family support for education in Finland with "exceptionally high levels of student interest and engagement in reading outside school".
And the report, noting that by the age of 15, Finnish pupils have outstripped both their English and Danish counterparts, raises the question as to whether an early attention to personal development leads to later academic success.
"Is it possible that the greater emphasis in Finnish early education on social, moral and physical development, mutual support and positive attitudes produces not only well-adjusted, sociable, altruistic and civically minded adults but also more highly motivated and successful readers?"