Every day, Lucy Dong and her best friend Amy Zhu wake at 7am, munch through their breakfast of steamed buns and noodles, and head off to what may be the best schooling system in the world.

The 10-year-olds, who are natives of Shanghai, China's sprawling financial capital, study in 35-minute bursts from around 8am to 4pm, with a small break for lunch - and a class meeting - sandwiched in the middle.

Outside school hours, the girls' lives are a blur of extra-curricular activities: English class, flute class, drumming class, handwriting class, calligraphy class, Taekwondo training, modelling lessons and choir practice.

Over the coming years, as they chase their respective dreams of becoming an astronaut and a poetry reciter, Lucy and Amy's lives are unlikely to be easy.


But they will at least be part of an education system that appears to be paying great dividends.

This week, Shanghai was crowned - for the second time - the champion of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which compares the maths, reading and science skills of 510,000 secondary school students around the world.

Shanghai's students came top of the global class in maths with an average score of 613 (up from 600 in the last Pisa tests of 2010). That was 119 points, or the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling, above the average, and placed Shanghai 25 places above Britain, which had 494 points. New Zealand was 22nd equal with 500 points.

Shanghai also came top in reading (570 points), just ahead of Hong Kong and Singapore, which joined it on the podium in all three Pisa categories.

Britain languished in 23rd place with 499 points, while New Zealand was 13th equal with 512 points.

Shanghai was also victorious in science (Britain came 21st and New Zealand 18th) and excelled when it came to "top performers". Twenty-five per cent of its students were placed in that bracket, the Pisa results showed.

Some experts question the value of comparing cities and countries. Others point out that Shanghai's relatively well-funded schools and well-paid teachers are not representative of the Chinese education system as a whole. Average pay for a Shanghai teacher is 4400 yuan ($880) a month compared with 2000 yuan in some cities in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

Professor Kong Lingshuai of the College of Education at Shanghai Normal University has studied the city's Pisa successes.

He says that the secret is a mix of "traditional elements and modern elements". The former relate to the high expectations of "tiger" parents, and a belief instilled in Chinese children from a young age that effort is crucial to gaining a good education.

"Chinese parents pay great attention to their children's education in the hope that their sons will one day become dragons and their daughters phoenixes," says Kong.

The "modern elements" include Shanghai's willingness constantly to adapt its curriculum and teaching practices; its focus on improving under-achieving schools by pairing them with those that excel; its openness to foreign ideas; and the introduction of performance-related pay.

An obsession with training has also been key, says Kong. As of last year, new teachers have to undergo a standardised, one-year training course before starting in the classroom.

Once qualified, they are required to complete at least 240 hours' training in their first five years. Teachers are also encouraged to attend each other's classes to promote a culture of "idea sharing, exchanging and positive competition".

Outsiders often dismiss China's education system as a pressure-cooker-style frenzy of exams that places too much emphasis on rote-learning and does little to stimulate creativity.

But in Shanghai at least, that may be starting to change.

Authorities are attempting to move away from testing that relies too heavily on memorising facts and figures, and some schools are also giving students more time to play, rather than just study.

Gao Xinhong, a Shanghai student who became a minor local celebrity after getting the highest marks in this year's "gaokao" university entrance exams, says the schooling system is becoming more flexible.

"The greatest part of Shanghai's education system was that it gave me a broad perspective compared to other Chinese cities. Shanghai's education is good because it does not treat grades as the only thing for a student," she says.

Zhu Yi, the father of 10-year-old Amy Zhu, agrees. "It is much better than before. Schools in Shanghai now focus on the all-round development of students," says Yi, a sports instructor.

He points to an ancient Chinese dedication to learning when asked to explain the city's Pisa successes, but warns: "Education is cultural. It can't simply be copied or borrowed."

Kong says cultural factors have been central to Shanghai's Pisa glories but suggests western students hoping to catch up with their Asian peers would do well to take on some extra homework.

"The number of hours Chinese students put into homework is several times higher than their western pals," he says.

Lucy Dong's mother, Wang Huichun, says that even Shanghai's over-achieving students need to work harder if they are to keep succeeding.

"[My daughter's] school is more interested in the arts than it is in academic performance," Wang complains, in true "tiger mother" fashion.

"There is not enough homework. It worries me a little."