Streets ahead: Students try out driving simulators. Photo: Sanghee Liu
If money is really key to buying a good education, then it is easy to see why Shanghai produces some of the brightest children in China and, by extension, some of the brightest in the world.
Students from China's affluent financial hub have once again dramatically outperformed their peers in the rest of the world, including Australia, in reading, maths and science, according to new results of an international standardised test for high-schoolers, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The math scores for the city's 15-year-olds, for example, put them three years ahead of their average peers from other OECD nations.
But China, uniquely, is not listed as a country in the rankings, and has only shared Shanghai's scores, unlike nearly all the other countries, including Australia, the US and Germany, which are all judged on their nationwide results. (Hong Kong and Macau also send separate data).
It has raised long-held concerns about the reliability of the test in its representation of China. And for many, the test merely highlights the wide disparity of education opportunities, depending on where you are born.
More than 80 per cent of Shanghai high school graduates go on to university, compared to less than a quarter nationwide. Shanghai's per capita gross domestic product is more than double the national average and parents are able to invest heavily in their children's education both at and outside school, to an extent typical Chinese workers cannot.
"I think it's common sense to emphasise that Shanghai doesn't represent the whole of China," said Liang Xiaoyan, an advocate for equality in education at Beijing-based NGO Western Sunshine Development.
She said education funding in Shanghai is almost eight times more than that of poorer provinces like Jiangxi and Guizhou.
At one end of the spectrum, at the historic Shanghai Middle School, an exclusive state-owned boarding school, more than 4 million yuan (about $725,045) has just been spent on six new machines for its suite of university-grade science laboratories. In its sprawling grounds the school has its own museum, performing arts centre, and a sports centre complete with regulation-size football field, tennis courts and swimming pool.
Zhang Jianhua, the deputy director of academic affairs at Shanghai Middle School, said top Chinese schools had long moved on from the stereotypes of dictatorial rote learning. Her school, she said, was all about giving students the best facilities in order for them to find their passion and nurture their talent.
On top of the core maths, science and humanities subjects, students are given a mind-boggling choice of more than 100 elective classes, including digital photography, music production, robotics and anti-terrorism.
More at home with those familiar with a misspent youth were a classroom full of driving simulators that seemed more NASCAR than PISA.
"It teaches students how to follow driving rules and prepares them for when they take their driving tests," Ms Zhang says, seemingly ignoring that most of the simulators were zipping along at 130km/h.
Tong Xiaoxi, a professor at the Agricultural University of China, said the test results only served to highlight the disparity of education standards in poorer parts of China, with many schools struggling to provide basic heating and to find qualified teachers.
Many schools on the outskirts of Shanghai, which cater for the children of itinerant migrant workers unable to access government-funded schools, still rely heavily on a volunteer workforce.
"There is a huge regional gap, and a huge gap between social classes in China's education system," Professor Tong said.
Ms Zhang denied Shanghai's test scores were skewed by privileged students like hers, pointing out Shanghai Middle School provided only 80 students out of the 6000-plus randomly selected for the test.
Instead, she says, social and demographic factors have been responsible for Shanghai's strong test results. Confucian culture naturally dictates a strong work ethic, and parents are wealthier and better-educated, having grown up after the worst of the Cultural Revolution. And because of the one-child policy, most students grow up with the vast weight of their parents' hopes and dreams piled squarely on their shoulders.
"There's definitely parental pressure, we all hear about the 'Tiger Mums'," said Zhang Yilei, a 17-year-old Shanghai Middle School student who took the PISA test last year.
"But the desire to do well academically, to want to pave the way for a good future, has to come from within. In this society, not just in China, it's becoming tougher to find a job and have a good career."