The tables cannot now be turned

Stephen Pollard

Here we go again. This week's publication of the GCSE league tables has produced the usual reaction from the usual suspects. If it isn't Doug McAvoy it's David Hart. There's a rule of thumb that applies as much to education as to any other walk of life: if the received wisdom says one thing, work on the assumption that the opposite is true. League tables are a prime example, and the attitude of the educational establishment remains typically wrong-headed.

When the league tables were first introduced in 1992, there was almost universal opprobrium directed at John Patten, the then education secretary. Labour spokesmen pledged themselves to abolition and the teaching unions threatened strikes and the end of civilisation as we know it. But one small, weak, ignored constituency wondered what the fuss was all about, and what was wrong with knowing how good a school was at getting its children through exams? Parents.

Turn the situation on its head. Imagine that schools had always published their exam results - it's amazing that we have to resort to imagination for this - and that parents had always had the opportunity to cast their eyes over their children's peers' results. Imagine then that Ann Taylor had remained in her post as shadow education secretary, and had then, on May 1, become the real thing.

Imagine further that among her first acts was a Bill carrying out her earlier pledge to ensure that this information should from now on be restricted information. "This is," she would have told Jeremy Paxman, "a government committed to freedom of information. But some information, such as exam results, can have harmful effects if used improperly, and put in the wrong hands. Parents should trust me. I know what is best."

That is what the argument boils down to. Those who oppose league tables come up with a number of arguments to justify their position. But they are speaking in code. When they talk about "teachers' morale suffering" they mean that the truth hurts when they are held accountable. When they say "support, not criticism" they mean that their own bare results aren't good enough to stand on their own.

The argument that GCSE results are not good enough is the most pernicious argument against league tables. Of course, the more sophisticated the table is the better.

Some measure of "added value" is useful in assessing a school's capabilities.

But the plain fact is that when school-leavers go for job interviews, employers do not ask how badly they were doing when they started at school, and what percentage increase they achieved by the time they took GCSEs. Employers simply want to know how many GCSEs they have, and what their grades are. Added value can be a useful tool. But it never got anyone a job.

Until three years ago, Labour policy was still effectively in the hands of the National Union of Teachers and the results were appalling. After two years of "consultation" - a few cups of coffee with the same old faces - Ms Taylor had her gleaming new document ready. Scrap league tables, abolish grant-maintained schools. You know the thing.

And then something terrible happened to Ms Taylor and the other friends of the NUT. Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party. It was inconceivable that Tony Blair would sanction the scrapping of league tables. He has never been in grip of the educational establishment. He understands that no one is better qualified to push schoolsand pupils upwards than a parent. League tables - and the inform-ation they contain - are a pre-requisite.

The argument is over. Freedom of information has won. The squeals that we hear this week are the death cries of dinosaurs.

Stephen Pollard is head of research at the Social Market Foundation

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