Sharp differences exist between general further education colleges, and sixth-form colleges over the use and effect of league tables.
The general FE colleges largely discount them. Fashion, locality, peer-group pressure, word of mouth, provision of facilities; all these weigh much more heavily with students than the college's place on the table. But the sixth-form colleges find that students and parents, especially the latter, scan the material eagerly.
Hills Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge has been at or near the top of the college league for the last four years. Colin Greenhalgh, the principal, said: "They do have an impact on the choices student make. It is inevitable that they will be influenced if they see a college getting good results, or conversely getting bad results.
"But other things have to be taken into account as well, such as the nature of the student intake. League tables do need to carry a health warning."
He would like them to carry an added-value calculation, to show how effective the school really has been in enabling students to progress. Hills Road has been able to demonstrate its effectiveness in improving grades over the last two years. "For example, when they come to us their GCSEs might suggest they would get three Cs at A-level. In fact they go on to get two Bs and a C. "
John Korzeniewski, principal of Solihull Sixth Form College, says parents are increasingly aware of the league tables and are constantly seeking more information. "But they are specifically interested in particular subjects. They ask, for example, what was your pass rate in English?
"They are not as relevant an issue at general FE colleges. I used to be principal of a general FE college, and A-levels were only a small part of our portfolio. Here they are what we do."
But at Solihull College, vice-principal Angela Myers says useful comparisons between schools and colleges cannot be made with league tables. "They compare unlike with unlike. They give you the sense that everything is neat and tidy, and you are talking about a single cohort of students.
"They do not recognise that some FE students take longer to do their course, and may put parts of different qualifications together. They don't take into account the flexible provision in FE, and the fact that many students are part-time. They make assumptions about what is right and best."
The difference in the nature of the institutions makes league tables unreliable and misleading, say many principals. A-levels for many colleges are only a small proportion of the total provision.
"Publish all the results of all the students, including all the vocational ones. All ages, all qualifications," said Alan Birks, principal of South Birmingham College. "That would be nearer the true figure. One college in the West Midlands came bottom of the table last year, but only because it was a specialist college and only offered very few A-levels."
One fear is that schools tend to weed out weaker pupils to ensure their results look good. Chris Webb, principal of Handsworth College, said: "We have a very different mission statement. We are committed to access and sometimes this does not sit prettily with achievement.
"We take time to get people back into the system in order that they can achieve. The wild card is that we take people for A-levels who have been rejected by others. How is this reflected in the league tables?
"I guess a sixth-form college lives or dies by its excellence or achievement and it uses this as a marketing tool.
"League tables imply choice but many of our students do not have choice. They cannot afford to travel or they need local child care. Our college offers courses in Indian scalp massage, Tarmac-stretching, Urdu and Punjabi. I don't think the people who are doing these courses read the league tables," he said.
According to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University, league tables have an effect on "impression formation" and help to constitute a folklore about theinstitution.
"League tables for schools and sixth-form colleges are straightforward and newspapers are adept at explaining the information. But information about FE colleges is more diffuse and so it is harder to encapsulate. The colleges are not so uni-dimensional," said Professor Smithers.
"I think what is influential in FE is whether the college has a good reputation where the student wants to work.
"The moves towards school selection have come about because of league tables. Heads, like football managers, have been casting around for talent and more are inclined to select. There is no similar effect in FE."
The purpose of league tables is to "help young people approaching compulsory schooling to make informed choices about what and where to study next. But information must be fair, comprehensive and mirror the provision in the sector," said Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges.
"Many FE colleges would be in the premier league if there were a level playing-field. Think about it."