They sing the Chinese national anthem with gusto, hundreds of little arms bent in salute and faces transfixed on the country’s red flag as it is hoisted high above Wuning Road school in Shanghai.
Here and at other primary schools across the country the next generation of Chinese is taught everything from mathematics and English to tea-making, football, ethics and even hip-hop dancing.
Western interest in China’s school system, and Shanghai in particular, has intensified after the city’s pupils aced worldwide standardised tests in recent years.
Teachers from England have been visiting to learn from Shanghai’s success and the World Bank last year published a report titled, “How Shanghai does it: Insights and lessons from the highest-ranking education system in the world”.
As teacher Zhang Jing watched, boys and girls wearing the school uniform of trainers, blue tracksuit bottoms, white T-shirts, and red or green scarves, work silently on math exercises.
What does Zhang do if they talk?
“I look at them,” she replies in perfect English. That’s all that is needed by way of a reprimand.
Chinese education has long had a reputation for strong discipline and conformity, but teachers at Wuning Road, whose students are aged 8-12, and at another high-performing Shanghai school say success today requires a slightly different approach.
Teachers want pupils to like, not fear them, and say they encourage expression and creativity.
“I’m dealing with young children and what they need from the teacher is a kind of gentleness,” said Shen Yi, a maths teacher with 26 years’ experience.
‘Stay in line’
Shen sets her class of 34 boys and girls a statistics task and walks among their desks as they beaver away, occasionally touching them tenderly on the back of the head, addressing them as “little sister” or offering words of encouragement like, “Your graph is so pretty”.
Pupils sit ramrod-straight, arms folded one on top of the other, and speak only when addressed.
“We basically don’t have punishments, only encouragement,” said Shen.
“It makes them feel the relationship between them and their teacher is really close, like a mother or a friend, and that makes them think, ‘The teacher loves me so I want to go to class’.”
Melodic music played on the school P.A. system signals class is over and the students stand in unison and belt out: “Goodbye teacher!”
It’s now time for the school’s 1,300 children to pay their daily respects to China’s flag.
They file into the playground and stand to attention for the raising of the banner before enthusiastically singing the national anthem.
Next, as military-style marching-band music plays, the children perform physical exercises by heart. Barely an arm or leg is out of sync.
“Stay in line, left, right, left, right,” barks a woman with a microphone. “Eyes forward and swing your arms.”
A staff member at another top-performing local school said discipline is instilled foremost by parents, and China’s Confucian traditions mean rules are obeyed and teachers are highly respected authority figures.
The World Bank’s report said Shanghai’s academic success is due largely to high-quality teaching. It credited rigorous pre-service training and continuous professional development of teachers once they start.
“One of the most impressive aspects of Shanghai’s education system is the way it grooms, supports and manages teachers, who are central to any effort to raise the education quality in schools,” it said.
It also lauded Shanghai for making schools accountable for their students’ performance, and for a system under which high-performing schools provide management and professional support to lower-performing ones.
Shen and others say their mission is not just about academics, but also about producing “upstanding” members of Chinese society.
Teachers say lessons are designed to be relevant to everyday life, so Shen uses examples of trees and flowers instead of pure numbers in her class.
Path to the Party
Like other Chinese schools, Wuning Road teaches “ethics” and “morals”. But teachers are vague on specifics and on how much time is dedicated to studying Communist Party doctrine and “Xi Jinping Thought”, the president’s eponymous philosophy now pushed as the national credo.
The scarves around pupils’ necks indicate they are on the path to perhaps one day joining the party.
The school hand-picks one boy and one girl, both aged 10 and top pupils, to answer pre-prepared questions put forward by AFP.
July breathlessly rattles off well-rehearsed replies in English.
She does two hours’ homework straight after school and three more after dinner. There is no time for television, though she admits enjoying Disney films when homework allows.
What’s the worst thing about school?
“There is no worst thing about my school. Everything is good.”