It takes less time for the bullet train to shoot along the 85 kilometres between Shanghai and Suzhou than it does to complete the short taxi ride to the station. Endless factories, thickets of pylons and murky canals pass in a blur, barely visible through the brown early-morning smog, leaving you in no doubt about China's breakneck rate of development.
Suzhou has been described as the Venice of the Orient. But the six-lane highways, shiny office blocks and booming industry in this metropolis of more than 10 million do little to match that romantic image.
Today it is a place where things get done, where trains leave on the dot and money - and much more besides - gets made. In economic terms, the city, like China as a whole, has become a roaring powerhouse, a ruthlessly efficient success story.
And so it has seemed for education. Shanghai, China's only representative in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), has consistently beaten all-comers since it entered the global education rankings in 2009, sweeping the board with top scores, well above those of its competitors, in reading, maths and science. There is reason to believe that schools in the nearby and similarly dynamic Suzhou will reach similar heights in this year's Pisa tables.
They are entering for the first time as part of Jiangsu, an eastern province with a reputation for excellence in education that goes back centuries. So you might expect that Suzhou parents would be revelling in that scholastic success, happy to send their children to the kind of schools that have beaten the world. In fact, something quite different is happening among the city's most ambitious and affluent families. Parents have been given the choice to opt out of China's state education system in favour of a very English alternative, and growing numbers are taking it.
Change of direction
"They want this more creative, more free kind of education for their children," explains Karen Moffat, director of the city's Dulwich International High School (DIHS). Her school is one of a growing number of satellite institutions opened in Asia in partnership with Dulwich College, the prestigious 400-year-old South London private school. That is not unusual - plenty of famous old English independent schools, including Wellington and Harrow, have entered the overseas franchising business and China is one of the most popular markets.
What makes Moffat's school a pioneer is that this isn't just another outpost for expats. It is a departure from the vast majority of foreign-run schools in China. They may educate ethnically Chinese students, but only if they are from Hong Kong or Macau, or hold foreign passports. Until recently, pupils from the Chinese mainland have been banned from receiving an international education.
DIHS in Suzhou is among the first of a new breed of schools allowed to target domestic Chinese families. Local children must still attend normal Chinese primary and middle schools. But, providing they can pass the tough entrance exams, after turning 14, they can now attend a school offering an English curriculum, complete with IGCSEs and A-levels.
Annual fees at DIHS, currently pound;11,000, may be half of what an expat international school in China would charge, but in local terms it is still an expensive option. Parents - usually business owners, bankers or professionals - sometimes have to remortgage their homes to pay for it. However, their children believe the financial sacrifice is worth it.
Rae Zhang Ruijue, a teenager in her second year at DIHS, likes the greater flexibility offered by the Western approach. "In a regular Chinese school you are forced to study certain subjects," she says. "But in this kind of school I am able to pick the kind of subject I like and want to study."
Many other families would like their children to have the same options. The school is oversubscribed, and the market has responded accordingly. There are now at least 12 institutions offering an international education - usually English, American, Canadian or the International Baccalaureate - to domestic Chinese pupils in Suzhou, at least four times the number that existed eight years ago.
The downside is that by enrolling, students must be prepared to turn their backs on mainstream Chinese education. International schooling means you cannot sit the gaokao university entrance exam, which means you cannot attend a Chinese university and must head overseas for higher education. Moffat acknowledges that participating parents are "taking a huge risk".
"A lot of the parents haven't been overseas, it is a complete black room to them," she says. "They don't really understand very well what they are getting."
What they are clear about is their end goal. Parents among Suzhou's elite - the "new rich", as Moffat describes some of them - want their children to go to the world's very best universities. That invariably means a US or UK institution, which makes Western-style schooling an attractive option.
But it is not just the pull of the West that encourages the gamble. There is also a strong push away from China's ultra-competitive schooling system.
"It is because of the pressure of the gaokao," says Sharon Zhauang. And she should know, having taught in one of the province's elite schools for 27 years before becoming principal of DIHS. "There is only one path [to a good Chinese university]: you have to get a very high score, which you have to work very hard for. A lot of families now feel they don't want their children to be under so much pressure."
Zhauang's own experience is a measure of just how quickly Chinese education has changed. Her schooling was hampered by the Cultural Revolution - the anti-intellectual movement instigated by communist leader Mao Zedong to reimpose his ideology on China. During the traumatic period between 1966 and 1976, university entrance exams were cancelled, teachers were persecuted and books were burned. Zhauang spent whole semesters doing outdoor practical work instead of academic study. She was eventually able to take the gaokao and go to university. But she never caught up the missed time, forcing her to give up on her ambition to become a doctor and instead go into teaching.
Now the situation is reversed, with academic competition in China's schools raised to a level where increasing numbers want out.
Getting a life
"In our regular [Chinese] schools, we had too much homework," says second-year DIHS pupil Grace Xu Jingyi. "I would do homework, homework, homework and go to sleep."
Her classmates confirm that it is not uncommon to receive five or six hours of homework a day at Chinese middle schools, compared with the hour or so they receive at DIHS.
The "English only" signs that festoon the campus - to ensure that the language of instruction is spoken in corridors as well as classrooms - are a reminder of the additional demands that accompany an international education. But the students still feel that they are winners.
"Here, we have more free time and can manage our time for our hobbies," Xu Jingyi says.
They also enjoy a less hierarchical relationship with teachers than they were used to. "In a normal middle school we acted like the teacher is our boss," says fellow student Lanstero Sang Qi. "But here teachers are more like friends. We are more equal."
Zhauang says the decision to allow some students to have a Western education came against a backdrop of calls from national government for new approaches in all classrooms: "In the last 10 years, the minister for education has been encouraging schools to take in a lot of Western techniques, such as team-teaching and project work."
Previously, she says, it was teachers who led lessons in Chinese schools. But now "students are encouraged a lot more to explore for themselves after discussions".
Moffat says that secondary education has come to be seen as a "failure" of modern China. "It is because it is rote learning, very uncreative, very `copy the master, don't innovate'," she explains. "It is a very gruelling education. There is not a lot of teaching going on. It is `here is the exam and we will prepare for the exam'. It is years of horrendous slog.
"There is a feeling that things must change and the government are committed to changing. But it is going to be very slow."
Growing numbers of Chinese parents with money are not prepared to wait. Some of their children now study for qualifications developed in a country - England - that has itself been frantically dispatching schools ministers to Shanghai on fact-finding missions to work out how to emulate China's educational feats. Shanghai's maths teachers have been flown thousands of miles in the other direction so that they can show their English counterparts how it's done.
The irony is not lost on Moffat. The South African, who has also taught in England and Hong Kong, views such initiatives as "laughable".
"They want to know `How can we take the magic bullet back [from China]?' Well, the magic bullet is that the entire family is invested in this child's education. And this is a country of single-child families, so every child has six adults' complete and utter focus on their education: two sets of grandparents and two parents. There is a hyper-focus from the whole of society wrapped around the child's success at school. That is a cultural difference you can't transplant."
Nature and nurture
It is hardly surprising that the director of a school offering a Western alternative to Chinese education should attribute the country's high test scores to culture rather than teaching. But research published by the UCL Institute of Education in October supports Moffat's view.
The study looks at the individual Pisa results of a number of East Asian - mostly Chinese - second-generation immigrants in schools in Australia. It finds that they perform better than almost everyone else in the world, despite being taught in an "average" education system.
The experience of Chinese students in DIHS has been similar. There is no suggestion that the school offers an "average" education, but the homework burden is undeniably lighter. Yet results match domestic Chinese schools, with some pupils achieving four or five A*-grade A-levels and winning places at elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.
Richard Nunns, deputy headteacher of DIHS, says that it is once they start at these universities that the benefits of their Western schooling become apparent. "Students who come out of Chinese high schools and are suddenly dropped in a Western university can close [themselves] away inside their rooms," he says. "We provide more of a transition."
Moffat adds that she is told by former students that they are culturally "way better prepared than other Chinese kids" for Western university life, their self-esteem boosted by the drama activities that all Dulwich pupils must participate in.
"We had some Chinese visitors from the education department in Nanjing here and they said, `Just the way your kids walk is different'," she adds. "It is the confidence they have."
But the students also retain the stoicism, self-motivation and willingness to work hard that Chinese society appears to instil. "They are heavenly," Moffat enthuses. "They are a teacher's dream.
"They are also passionate about what they do. These kids are not exam robots by any means - they really love what they do and they put their heart and soul into it."
So, is the combination of the East Asian cultural respect for education and the creativity of liberal, Western-style schooling producing the ultimate super-students? The director of DIHS believes so - and if she is right, competition for the world's best universities is going to get tougher. Figures released in November reveal that the number of Chinese students at US universities jumped by 75 per cent in three years to almost 275,000 in 2013-14. And that is with China's exploding new market for Western schooling still in its infancy.
Moffat describes the number of places that schools like hers offer as "a drop in the ocean", compared with the 24 million or so upper-secondary pupils in the country.
Only Western universities themselves, fearing domination by students from one country, stand in the way of China's conquest of higher education's global elite. Travis Coverdell, head of university admissions at DIHS, suspects that, in a desire to encourage diversity in their student populations, top institutions are already operating informal limits on the numbers of Chinese students they admit.
"China constitutes 30 per cent of the world's population, roughly," he says, "so the odds are that there is a cap."
If such limits start to bite, the fierce competition within China for overseas university places will only intensify. This could make the edge offered by Western-style schooling even more attractive.
Best of both
Back in Shanghai, Brian McDouall - director of schools for Dulwich College Management International, the umbrella group that already runs seven schools across East Asia - has even bigger ideas. He believes there could eventually be scope for international education aimed at the Chinese domestic market to expand beyond senior high schools into lower age groups. And he wants to be involved.
"We are excited by the possibilities," he says. "Why would you not want to be at the cutting edge?"
The group's international school in Beijing - a red-brick campus built to resemble Dulwich College in London - had to have a dome specially constructed to allow pupils to play sport safely in artificially purified air. The appalling pollution levels suffered by the city are a poisonous side effect of China's booming economy.
But critics claim the country is now facing even more damaging fallout from its apparently world-beating school system. Levels of cramming and test-focused learning are reaching unhealthy levels as a burgeoning, ambitious middle class competes for a finite number of good university places. And it is an approach to education developed in England that could provide the pedagogical fresh air that some of China's 180 million pupils crave. "The potential," McDouall says, "is massive."
`Teachers who are not absolutely on their game will be horribly exposed'
Western teachers can find it "really tough" when they first teach a class of Chinese pupils, says Karen Moffat (pictured), director of Dulwich International High School in Suzhou.
Pupils will "literally" know the relevant textbook, and the last decade's worth of past exam papers, off by heart.
"Teachers who are not absolutely on their game with subject knowledge are going to be horribly exposed," she says.
"The kids will test you out. They think, `If this teacher doesn't know what they are talking about, they are an obstacle in the way of our progress. So we have to find out if they can cut the mustard, and if they can't we will ignore them and self-study as a group.' And that's what they do.
"Then I have 48 parents at my door saying, `It's not good enough'. We have had to let teachers go because they get things wrong. In an international school [for British pupils], it might take a while for them to get found out. But here, I have immediate feedback from parents."
Moffat says new teachers can also find the "wall of silence" that initially greets them in classrooms "very intimidating".
"You come in and start talking to the kids and think, `My God, nobody can understand me or hear me!' because there is nothing, no response.
"It is cultural reticence and it takes quite a while to help them join the cut and thrust of discussion."
But Chinese pupils do tend to have an "intrinsic motivation" that their Western counterparts can lack, she believes.
"In a British school, as an English teacher I would say, `Read these three great books', not really expecting them to be read. But here you have to be careful what you say, because they will read them all and come back and say, `Have you any other recommendations?' "
Steps away, worlds apart
The teenagers at Dulwich International High School don't have to look far to see the kind of education they've left behind. The school shares a site with, and is run in association with, a leading proponent of the established Chinese method.
A few steps away are the traditional oriental pavilions and classical Chinese garden bridge of Suzhou High School (pictured above), an institution that makes Dulwich College in London (right) look like a young upstart.
Founded in 1035, the boarding school remains one of the top secondaries in Jiangsu. Only the province's very best performers in the zhongkao high-school entrance exam receive its coveted 2,000 places. One particularly selective elite maths course, for example, has 1,000 candidates competing for just 20 places.
But even this bastion of Chinese excellence has realised that there is an appetite for change. In 2007, it started offering some pupils an IGCSE and A-level curriculum, developed in England, and this international programme led to the current joint arrangement that has spawned DIHS.