Humans love a list, a ranking, a way of understanding things through a numerical order based on a predetermined merit – from where you finished in your Saturday morning parkrun to who got the most likes on a Facebook post. Our media have long been aware of this desire to process information quickly, and have capitalised on this cheap approach to filling space, from the music charts to myriad lists of the "most influential" people (which are even more susceptible to manipulation than the hit parade, you’d have thought).
Therefore, when the Scottish government started publishing information on secondary school performance almost two decades ago, it was obvious that news outlets would race to turn the raw data into easily digested tables for their readers. As a student journalist, I was part of this. One year, I had a midnight shift at The Herald newspaper, processing the data as they rushed to get their league tables out before their rivals.
The problem with lists, however, is that by their very nature they are a crude measure of something more complex. Lewis Capaldi might be Number One with Someone You Loved, but no one above the age of 8 would consider it to be the “best” song, based on that measure. Yet when it comes to school league tables, that logic goes out of the window. To promote the Scottish school rankings compiled by The Times last week, for example, The Sun tweeted: “Every school ranked, from best to worst” – based purely on the reductionist measure of the percentage of pupils gaining Higher passes.
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Like a doctor only using a thermometer to determine who is healthy, the percentage of Higher passes is just one method of assessing the quality of a school. And it does not take into account how schools stick the thermometer under their armpit to game the system – for example, by removing pupils from subjects because they are not a stick-on certainty to pass.
A truer reflection of a school would be one that took into account how many hours of private tuition each student has every week, what space each one has to go and study at home, how many school days were missed due to caring duties, and how many nights’ sleep were lost due to the noise of violence on the other side of the bedroom wall.
While the newspapers' league tables might keep house prices satisfactorily high in the catchment areas of the schools at the top of the charts, the teachers in the schools propping them up feel demoralised after their annual kicking. The implication the figures create is that they are as not as good at their job as those ones at the top, as if there is some sort of meritocratic transfer market for teachers. There has to be a knock-on effect on the motivation of pupils, too: some will feel there's no point in trying hard if they are doomed due to their postcode, while others will see a lifetime Get Out of Jail Free card, insisting, “It's not my fault I didn't do well – look at the school I went to”.
When my daughter found out that San Marino were ranked the worst international men’s football team in the world, after Scotland laboured to a victory in that tiny country on Sunday, she asked me this: “Does that mean Scotland are the second-worst team?” Not quite, I told her, it’s not as simple as that.
And neither is reducing a school's staff, pupils and accomplishments to a place list in a specious list of rankings – so let’s get that message out there, too.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland