Richard Garner: Culture of hard work pays off in the Far East

View from China

The biggest success story of the international league tables is, without a doubt, that of Shanghai.

This year is the first time schools from mainland China have entered the tables and they have walked off with the top ranking in all three subjects: maths, reading and science.

So how have they done it? Well, Andreas Schleicher, head of the education directorate at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, gave us some insight at a briefing to launch the report. In the east, they believe it all has to do with hard work, he said. Four of the top five countries in the reading tests were Far Eastern nations – Shanghai was joined by Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

They all have a disciplined traditional approach to education and are not afraid to put in long hours in the classroom, Mr Schleicher added.

Shanghai did not become successful by throwing money at its education system. "The fact that the best performing country in the 2009 assessment is Shanghai, China, with a gross domestic product well below the OECD average, underlines that low national income is not incompatible with strong education performance," the report says.

The secret to its success, as revealed in the report, is that it manages to combine putting emphasis on stretching its brightest pupils to targeting help for those struggling to read or add. By contrast, much of the emphasis in the UK has been about targeting resources at the most disadvantaged students.

To show the measure of Shanghai's success, nearly half those from the poorest backgrounds were classified as "resilient" – they did better than expected of them. The figure for the UK was 22 per cent.

But Shanghai may not be typical of China, as no other part of the country was included in the study.