We know that they are crude, simplistic, misleading, potentially dangerous and, in at least one area, wildly inaccurate, but since they cannot be ignored we take our little pleasures where we can. A neighbouring college's figures look worse than our own, perhaps, or half of the city technology colleges are below national and local averages, or the tables are so complicated that few are likely to be bothered to understand them. Or another vice-chancellor or principal will get the elbow next week and everyone will have something else to talk about.
But since a forest about the size of Sweden must have been felled to produce all the newsprint that was devoted to the tables last week, and David Blunkett now says that he would authorise more rather than less information were he Secretary of State, we need collectively to provide some sort of response. More information is still likely to be more misinformation and will still be largely irrelevant to the real issues. But this bandwagon will continue to roll.
If you want to know something of value about a college, read the report on it by the FEFC Inspectorate. They've now done about a quarter of the sector and will have completed the first round of inspections by the end of 1996 in a rolling four-year programme. These reports are derived from a quality assessment framework and process that was drawn up by people who know about the diversity and complexities of the FE sector, which is not so of many of the DFE - and they deal with the totality of the service that colleges offer to students and with the quality of the student's experience. The inspections and the reports are widely regarded as being rigorous, extensive and objective and have left a few colleges badly bruised. However, less than 10 per cent of the provision inspected has been categorised as demonstrating more weakness than strengths, and Terry Melia's first annual report speaks of "a picture with which the sector and those who work in it can be pleased."
There is evidence that the clearer understanding of the inspection framework and of its indirect but nonetheless real link to levels of funding have already resulted in higher standards. Quality systems and management accountability are two of the key areas that are inspected, along with resourcing levels - still uneven - and student achievement. At Solihull College we are vigorously limbering up for the first round of our own inspection, starting in February.
I claimed earlier that some of the information in the tables is inaccurate and wrong, rather than merely misleading. I have to declare an interest here - these are dangerous times - as my example is my own college, and we are at risk of being damaged by the failure to devise a system that provides better information about vocational courses.
I can tell you, confidently, that the figures as printed for Solihull College are wrong, and that they almost certainly are so for a large number of other colleges, Kingsway, Sheffield, Cornwall, City of Westminster, Shrewsbury, Arnold and Carlton and Cannock Chase among them. In our case, the true figure for student success in the vocational courses listed is 85 per cent, not 69 per cent, because we were assessed on incomplete returns. The results of vocational courses are not available on one day, as are A-level results: it can take months for the final verification to come back to us from BTEC or elsewhere. We can deal with the error, but less easily so with the damage that may be caused.
But this is far from the only weakness of the tables. Why are they so dominated by A-levels when everyone but some A-level teachers and the Government knows that A-levels are the biggest obstacle to post-16 coherence? Why are we so obsessed with assessment by terminal exam? Why, since we know that colleges contribute massively to the National Targets for education and training, don't we publish details of their real achievements? Why don't we compare like with like?
The league tables, however much it's argued that they extend choice, aid parents and inform local communities, are a cheap and nasty way of diverting attention from most of the real problems facing our education system. Mrs Shephard, who seems to be a woman more influenced by common-sense than by dogma, should reform them or abandon them.
Colin Flint is principal of Solihull College.