Children in Primary Four (age nine to 10) at La Salle primary school in Hong Kong are working hard before three days of mid-term tests. There are 38 nine-year-olds packed into neat rows, but the large class does not restrict their engagement as their teacher leads them through three ways to solve a complex equation.
These are children honed for competition. They eagerly stand to attention to give their answers. Many are engaged in maths outside the class. The better pupils join the maths club to be groomed for inter-school competitions and most log on to the school's intranet to solve the problems of the week.
The pressure is on these boys, from home and school, to do their best. Only if they make the grade can they be sure of places in the prestigious La Salle college, the neighbouring secondary school.
Pressure is part of education in Hong Kong. Reforms are trying to reduce it, but secondary places are currently determined by performance in school exams and territory-wide tests. At upper secondary it continues, with places for A-levels for only the top third. Changes in 2009 will allow everyone to take a single leaving diploma when Hong Kong replaces its Certificate of Education Examinations (equivalent to GCSEs) and A-levels, with a three-year, international baccalaureate-style diploma.
Yet the system as it stands produces outstanding results. Hong Kong was one of the star performers in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) survey of 2003, organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its 15-year-olds came top in maths, second in problem-solving and third in science out of 49 countries.
In reading literacy they came 10th, above the OECD average.
Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun, permanent secretary of education, explains: "We have the most diligent teaching force in the world and caring parents who put a lot of emphasis on education."
Elizabeth Pau, principal of La Salle primary, also puts Hong Kong's success down to high expectations and discipline, which she says is due to Chinese culture and enforced by the demands of memorising Chinese characters. "The language is tough," she says. "The mind is trained to do things meticulously."
The principal of neighbouring La Salle college, Paul Lau, said the strong foundations laid in primary school were important. "The boys have very good computation skills - mechanisms that will be helpful in exams," he said.
But Hong Kong was not top in the Pisa survey. The biggest star was Finland -first in reading and science, second in maths and joint second in problem-solving. Hong Kong and Finnish results were similar - with high-average performance, and both ensuring that weaker students did better than low-achievers in many other countries. But how they both got there is very different.
The Finns are not taught from a young age to compete. They learn in mixed-ability classes in comprehensive schools where no one talks about the pressure of exams. Even at the end of compulsory education there are no public exams - just a leaving certificate that summarises pupils' results over the previous two years and will determine their places in vocational or academic post-16 schools. Both lead to university or polytechnic which close to 70 per cent move on to, compared with 17 per cent in Hong Kong.
The Pisa results have turned the spotlight on Finnish schooling.
Policy-makers in other countries want to know how it has achieved what many regard as the holy grail of education - high performance and great equity without Asian-style pressure.
China, which is adopting Finland's senior secondary curriculum as a model for its own reform, sent 500 Chinese principals to Finland this summer to prepare for the new curriculum, being phased in by 2007. And British heads have visited Hong Kong and Finland as part of the British Council's International Placement for Headteachers scheme.
In Finland differences between the municipal-run schools are low and few parents see the need to send children to private school. Education Minister Tuula Haatainen points to a constellation of factors behind the performance, including the comprehensive system, professionalism of teachers, extensive decentralisation of control that filters to school level, and strong support for weaker students.
National programmes targeting maths, the sciences and reading have also borne fruit. Efforts have been made to make the maths and science curricula relevant to adult life - the skills Pisa measures. A major national maths and science initiative - the LUMA programme - ran between 1996 and 2002, with its approach now being adopted across the country. This aimed to make the subjects more interesting and relevant through greater integration of maths and science and an environmental approach applicable to real-life situations. Experimentation and problem-solving were at the heart of the programme.
A relative lack of social divisions and problems may also be a factor.
But two decades ago Finland was far from top of international tables, suggesting that policy is making a difference. That policy supports a radically different learning environment from that in Hong Kong - a difference particularly marked at primary level.
Reading is a special time in Annika Liski's class at Ilolan Koulu, a primary school near Helsinki. After finishing a science topic on evaporation, her 18 pupils take their books and crawl into cupboards, under the fish tank, beneath her desk or lie on the carpet - a scene undreamt of in Hong Kong.
Within a term of starting school at age seven, all Ms Liski's pupils are reading. Although they may have been to day-care for many years, and one year of kindergarten, there was no expectation for them to do anything other than learn through play before - whereas in Hong Kong children start learning characters and doing sums from age three.
"We don't only look at books - it is a hands-on approach," says Ms Liski, who has also been involved in developing standardised tests for the municipality to check pupils' progress each year - kept low-stakes, as there are no league tables.
It is up to schools and teachers how they implement the curriculum. Unlike in Hong Kong or Britain, there are no school inspections. Instead, the ministry relies on sample tests and outcomes as measured in studies such as Pisa to ensure it is on track. But a new, more prescriptive curriculum is being introduced next year, with the aim of further narrowing performance between schools.
The Hong Kong visitor to Finland is immediately struck by the well-resourced schools with vibrant small classes. Resources in Ms Liski's class include eight computers. There is a large library nearby and a canteen - the free, healthy, hot meal every child receives is seen as crucial to their well-being. Lunch consists of home-style cooking served with salad, a choice of milk or water, and fruit - with not a chip or fizzy drink in sight. In the staffroom there is a democratic culture and spirit of teamwork among confident teachers. All, even in kindergartens, have been trained over five years to master's level, including one year of practical research.
In Ilolan Koulu teachers work in teams to tailor the curriculum and swap children between classes - regardless of age, which they say enables them to better cater for individual needs. Within classes they oversee pupils working independently in small groups.
By contrast, in Hong Kong, primary teachers take command of their classes, their voices raised by microphones. They rely on textbooks for their guides.
"We are used to a traditional way of teaching - that children should all be sitting down and quiet," said Mrs Pau. "Experts may say it is wrong, but rote-learning can give children a very strong foundation in languages and maths."
In line with education reforms, Mrs Pau is also experimenting with new approaches such as project work.
The traditional Hong Kong school is managed hierarchically, with the principal and subject heads all-powerful. Just 55 per cent of Hong Kong's primary teachers are trained to degree level.
At secondary level, it has risen to more than 80 per cent. But schools can still recruit fresh graduates from other disciplines with no teacher training, though they are expected to pursue the latter part-time.
Mrs Pau does not think the training inadequate. "I don't think you need a master's degree to teach ABC," she said. More important was the experience, and heart for teaching, along with professional development.
In Finland, schools support the weakest pupils. At primary and secondary levels, special needs teachers work alongside classroom teachers and with children in one-to-one or small-group sessions.
Like Britain, Finland has a growing number of immigrant pupils and schools would like more resources to support them. But compared with Hong Kong, where few mainstream schools can offer Chinese as a second language, what they give is extensive.
In Jakomaki comprehensive school in Helsinki they spend one year in a language immersion programme and receive language support in subsequent years. They can also have two hours of teaching a week in their native language.
The Board of Education's counsellor, Reijo Laukkanen, who was involved in the Pisa study, says early intervention is vital to the success of the comprehensive system. "We try to support, support, support," he says. "Some other national systems trust only teaching in class. Children have no other opportunities than to try to find help from home." If this isn't forthcoming, they give up, he says.
In Hong Kong, mainstream schools have only recently begun to offer special needs support - traditionally all students are pushed hard and those who do not make it drop out before A-levels.
But even the weakest have been supported, in schools, at home and through private tutors. This, according to Professor Esther Ho Sui-chu, director of Chinese University's Hong Kong Centre for International Student Assessment and head of the Hong Kong Pisa programme, explains why Hong Kong's low-achievers are not that low by world standards.
"Chinese culture is also important. There is a strong belief about effort: if you are not up to standard it is not because you have low ability, but you must make more effort. This kind of belief makes a big difference, particularly for the low-achievers," she says.
Large classes might make it more difficult for teachers to focus on the individual, she says. But teachers are often offering high-quality, systematic instruction by following textbooks, which are of high standards.
Large classes can also work because there is greater discipline than in many Western countries.
However, even at primary level, pupils are heavily streamed. In La Salle college, there are 45 to a class. Most boys are in the top of three ability bands. "It is an issue of resources," says Paul Lau, its principal.
The selective allocation of secondary places is piling pressure on primary children.
Philip Yeung, founder of Voice of Parents, a pressure group, says: "Schools work hard to squeeze everything out of kids. They work on their homework until 11pm. All that is taking a lot of time from play and reading."
The Pisa results were telling. Hong Kong children had the least sense of belonging to their schools, and the lowest self-belief in their abilities in maths.
Professor Ho sees this as a major weakness of Hong Kong education.
"Learning is too exam-oriented. It limits the learning of our students. At undergraduate level we don't have students with creativity, flexibility and the motivation to search for knowledge."
But Professor David Hopkins, chair of international leadership in education at London's Institute of Education, warns that Finland's results do not mean testing and greater accountability of schools are not necessary. "If Finland had more testing and accountability they would be higher," he says.
Finland abandoned selection three decades ago. Teachers and students now take the comprehensive alternative for granted (although some flexible streaming was introduced within schools for maths and languages in the 1980s). "It works well, of course. If we have any problems we help each other," says Toni, 15, a Jakomaki pupil.
The highly professional, personalised education children receive means that there is nothing bog-standard about the system. But Finnish teachers cannot imagine teaching mixed abilities if faced with the large classes common in Hong Kong.
Jakomaki teacher Lenita Nivalainen said: "You would need two teachers and an assistant to make it work."
Two international conferences on Finland's success in Pisa will be held in Helsinki this autumn, for policy-makers and educators. Finland in Pisa Studies -Factors Contributing to the Results, takes place October 10-11; Finland in Pisa Studies - Supporting Learning and Welfare in Basic Education is on December 8-9. For information, e-mail Anita Varsa at email@example.com
How countries compare
Top 10 Pisa results 2003 for 15-year-olds (multiple comparisons of mean performance)*
Maths Reading Science literacy Problem-solving
1 550 Hong Kong-China 543 Finland 548 Finland 550 Korea
2 544 Finland 534 Korea 548 Japan 548 Hong Kong-China
3 542 Korea 528 Canada 539 Hong Kong-China 548 Finland
4 538 Netherlands 525 Australia 538 Korea 547 Japan
5 536 Liechtenstein 525 Liechtenstein 525 Liechtenstein 533 New Zealand
6 534 Japan 522 New Zealand 525 Australia 532 Macau-China
7 532 Canada 515 Ireland 525 Macau-China 530 Australia
8 529 Belgium 514 Sweden 524 Netherlands 529 Liechtenstein
9 527 Macau-China 513 Netherlands 523 Czech Republic 529 Canada
10 527 Switzerland 510 Hong Kong-China 521 New Zealand 525 Belgium
* The UK was the only OECD country that did not report. Data are based on samples, so ranking is only approximate