Is China’s Education System Really The Best in the World?


  • Former Schools’ Minister Elizabeth Truss led a delegation to Shanghai, China in February 2014 to investigate why students there apparently perform so well in maths.
  • “Shanghai is the top-performing part of the world for maths - their children are streets ahead,” Ms Truss said, adding: “Our new curriculum has borrowed from theirs because we know it works - early learning of key arithmetic and a focus on times tables and long division.”1
  • Ms Truss’s comments were largely based on the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests which are sat every three years by 15 year olds internationally and administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
  • Results for the 2012 tests, released in December 2013, showed Shanghai topping the international rankings in all three subjects tested – maths science and reading.
  • Shanghai is home to the wealthiest and most highly educated Chinese citizens. Although data from 12 rural provinces is also collected by PISA, it is not published so does not form part of the international picture for China’s educational achievements.
  • League table rankings fail to take account of different histories, cultures, socio-economic situation or customs and practices.  In this case, Shanghai’s apparent success in PISA is masked by the fact that it has a school system that excludes most ‘migrant’ students – i.e. students whose family history lies in provinces other than Shanghai.
  • Tom Loveless, a Senior Fellow, at the Brown Center on Education Policy at Washington’s Brookings Institute has analysed China’s hukou system and its impact on Shanghai’s PISA ranking. Every family in China is issued with either a rural or an urban hukou by its home village or city, “a document best understood as part domestic passport and part municipal license.”2 Hukous, which control access to municipal services including schooling, are transferred from generation to generation. So the children of migrant Chinese citizens receive their parents’ hukou, as will their own children, even if they are born in Shanghai.
  • The result is that an estimated 61 million Chinese children are left behind with relatives in villages when their parents move to cities for work. Others move with their parents and while, since 2008, migrant children have had access to Shanghai’s primary and middle schools up to age 14, the same is not true for its fee-charging high schools (where PISA tests are conducted).  Since 2013, some migrant children with highly educated parents or other high status characteristics have been able to attend Shanghai’s high schools. However, the remainder must return to the province that issued their hukou to attend rural schools if they hope to gain access to further education. According to Loveless, this creates “an exodus of migrant children from Shanghai as high school approaches.”3
  • One of the key findings from PISA 2012 was that the United Kingdom performs around the average in mathematics and reading and above average in science.4 The UK’s performance is similar to that of Denmark, France, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway.
  • Other global surveys include the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) published in December 2012. These showed that England was in the top 10 countries for both primary and secondary maths and was one of the most improved countries for maths from 1995-2011. In primary literacy tests, England was ranked 11th out of 45 nations; and for science, England’s ranking was 15th out of 50 countries for primary science and ninth out of 42 countries for secondary science.
  • The PISA findings show that successful countries have system stability and policies which are understood – that means they have planned reforms which are taking place over an extended period of time, rather than constant piecemeal change and review. This is a vital message for the Government to heed.

1 Alison Kershaw (25 February 2014), ‘Education minister Elizabeth Truss to travel to Shanghai to find out secrets behind maths success’ [online], The Independent. Available here.

2 Tom Loveless (11 December 2013) ‘Attention OECD-PISA: Your Silence on China is Wrong’ [blog post]. Available here.

3 Tom Loveless (8 January 2014) ‘PISA’s China Problem Continues: A Response to Schleicher, Zhang, and Tucker’ [blog post]. Available here.

4 OECD (2013), UNITED KINGDOM – Country Note –Results from PISA 2012, PISA, OECD Publishing. Available at

Teachers Building Society NQT mortgages