Lessons from Shanghai?

Education ministers have repeatedly used high achievement in Shanghai to accuse English schools of poor standards. A recent TES article, by a primary teacher in a school for migrants, gave a glimpse of the reality.

The school is located in an industrial suburb and caters for 1700 pupils, all of them children of migrant workers from other parts of China. Migrant worker children have to leave the city and return to their family’s place of origin if they wish to continue in education beyond age 14.

Most leave the city and continue their education in their hometowns, while their parents stay in Shanghai and work. In China, they are known as “left-behind children”; they might only see their parents twice a year, during summer and winter vacations.

migrant-workersIn fact, not all migrant children are even allowed into primary school: parents need to have a job and hold a long-term residence permit.

Since last year, migrant workers have found it harder to get long-term residence permits, and their children are therefore finding it harder to gain admittance to our school. In fact, many migrant children can’t attend, even if their parents are in legal employment, and so have to return to their hometowns, becoming left-behind children at a very young age and getting a poorer level of education.

PISA international tests

Shanghai is not a country but a prestigious city-state – a small and atypical part of China. In 2012 the Chinese government asked for PISA tests to be used in various provinces but only allowed Shanghai’s stunning results to be published. In 2015 results were released for the provinces of Shanghai, Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong grouped together. Although these are highly productive regions, collectively they ranked 10th in Science, 6th in Maths, and 27th in reading.

As we explained in an earlier blog, Shanghai has long seen itself as an elite intellectual powerhouse. Currently 84% go into Higher Education and its people place very high value on children’s education. (See the OECD’s more detailed analysis for other important factors.)

However most manual and routine work is carried out by non-citizens – migrants from other parts of China. These now amount to 54% of children starting primary school.


Data from Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institute shows 6 out of 10 leaving the city by age 15; those who remain go into low-skill employment or attend vocational schools, though some exceptions are made for exceptionally capable students. Most migrant workers’ children are no longer at school in Shanghai by age 15, when PISA tests take place.

Finally, school learning is heavily supplemented by homework and private tuition. One estimate is that tuition for high school students costs on average around 30,000 yuan annually, plus 19,200 for other activities such as tennis or piano. This is higher than the average Chinese worker earns in a year (42,000 yuan).

There is clearly some good development in Shanghai schools, with teachers highly respected and given time to plan lessons together, but this does not represent the achievement of the whole population. It is like substituting Oxford for England but without the city’s manual workers.

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