Children of English professionals do better than Chinese wealthiest in international reading and science tests – True or False?

Janet Downs's picture
The offspring of English professionals outperformed all children in Macao-China in reading and science in the 2012 PISA tests*. So in this case, the children of English professionals did score higher in these two subjects than Chinese pupils.

But Macao is not the whole of China. It’s a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with the same status as Hong Kong but with far fewer people (583,000 to Hong Kong’s 7m). It is, therefore, inaccurate to say the sons and daughters of English professionals outperform their counterparts in China.

But it’s quite common headlines such as the one below to appear in the UK:

“China's poorest children outperform UK's middle class in international maths tests.”

TES 18 February 2014

This headline referred not to China but to Shanghai. And Shanghai, like Macao, is not the whole of China. But Shanghai’s results in PISA tests are used to claim that China as a whole is racing ahead of the rest of the world in educational achievement.

But Shanghai isn’t typical. And there’s a debate about just how many 15-year-olds in Shanghai were missing from the tests. According to the OECD Economic Survey China 2013:

“In Shanghai…some 70% of migrant children now receive free compulsory education in state schools. However, progress has been more modest regarding access to senior secondary school…”

Migrant children in this context are not children of foreign born parents but the children of parents who migrate to Shanghai from other regions. Such migrants have no official registration (hukou) in the cities in which they live. The hukou system is being relaxed but the OECD says the reforms to date attract mainly “highly-educated individuals”. In other words, the migrant children who most benefit are the children most likely to perform well in education tests. And senior secondary school begins at age 15. It’s likely many children age 15+ are not in school in Shanghai and if they’re not in school they can’t take tests aimed at 15-year-olds.

Shanghai outperforms the rest of the world in PISA. And Shanghai’s superiority may in part be due to the reforms it has made to its education system (reforms which move away from the type of education favoured by Education Secretary Michael Gove). But it may also be due to the absence from school of pupils likely to bring down test scores.

Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD's Secretary General, claims resident migrants in Shanghai are covered in PISA samples. But he admits Shanghai’s sample covered only 79% of the city’s 15-year-olds.

So, when headlines appear about Chinese “poorest” children outperforming UK “middle class” children, remember: if the data relates to Shanghai, Shanghai is not representative of the whole of China just as the City of London is not representative of the whole of the UK.


PISA says this about Shanghai:

“In the case of Shanghai-China, for instance, the coverage of the total 15-year-old population (in and out of school) is high…and the sample covers all school types both public and private. All migrant children who are enrolled in school are covered by the sample, other than children whose parents have a residence permit for less than 6 months, which is a small proportion of the migrant children.”

Note the phrase “all migrant children who are enrolled in school”. This implies that some migrant children are not enrolled in school despite the earlier assurance that the coverage includes pupils who are “out of school”. It’s unclear how children who are not in school can take PISA tests.

*To compare the results of up to two countries in PISA 2012 according to parental occupation see PISA's new interactive tool. Be warned - it's addictive.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.