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Tables may be turning, but not yet

The chief inspector of schools in England recently accused the Welsh Assembly of letting down parents by abolishing league tables. The Department for Education and Skills' latest analysis, however, suggests performance tables may be doing neither schools nor families many favours (page 2). Will England also soon be abandoning this annual ritual?

Don't hold your breath - or not this side of the impending election. Labour is hardly going to offer its head on this policy platter to the leader writers of the Daily Mail just now. But signs of a welcome rethink - or clouds of suspicion if you are of chief inspector David Bell's persuasion - are beginning to muster.

Last autumn's stinging attack from the National Audit Office on government - and Ofsted's - reliance on raw results was one early portent. And there is a growing concern about the narrowing effects of the tables on teaching and learning. But political backing for these symbols of consumerism will be overturned only by an even stronger political imperative.

Another DfES finding this week - the public perception that secondaries are not getting better despite rising results and investment - shows there is such an imperative. Ranking schools by raw results provokes dissatisfaction among parents. Given that there will always be limited numbers of places in the most socially and academically attractive schools heading such tables, ministers' promises of the choice of a good local school will always seem hollow and unsustainable.

Tables designed to place consumer pressure on schools are in fact exerting political pressure on a government which - after seven years in office - needs to be able to demonstrate that most schools are now able to provide effectively for any given child.

Parents can never again be denied information on schools' results - and they aren't in Wales. But expect to hear ministers in England extolling the virtues of school profiles as much richer and more helpful to parents as they attempt to find a more acceptable alternative to the annual festival of winners and losers in education.

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