Can the publication of primary league tables be separated from politics? In a less political climate they would not have been published this year. The marking was unreliable, some of the test questions dubious, the test conditions and preparation varied from school to school. The tests had not yet "bedded down".
But ready or not, the tables are a major plank in the Tories' platform of public information, parental choice and accountability. And despite their inherent faults they do provide information. As with the publication of OFSTED reports on individual schools, once this information is out, there is no going back. The questions to be asked in more rational times are when, in what form, and by whom they should be published.
Information can be dangerous. The tables can be distorted by a few absences during the tests, or by a disproportionate number of special needs pupils. To read them usefully, one needs a detailed local knowledge. They do not show when great strides have been made by schools in deprived areas. In strict ranking order, they often still fall below middle-class schools which are doing a middling job. This is why baseline measures to show what value the school has added to the children's progress are crucial.
What the league table does best is show middle-class parents where the middle-class schools are. One effect could be to make popular schools even more in demand, leading to more disappointment. Publishing value-added measures or free school meals numbers will only make the context more obvious. Most parents will not want a school that does wonders with difficult children. They want one with easy children.
That said, with local knowledge, readers of the tables can begin to make comparisons of schools with similar intakes. They may find, for instance, that School C outshines School D in maths, but School D is better in science. Or that School A has done much better in the basics than its neighbour, School B. Simple reasons, like a flu epidemic or the presence of a special needs unit, can be asked about on a visit to the school. We must believe that parents will use these tables intelligently, taking them as only part of the available information.
For schools which find they are doing badly, compared with others with similar profiles, there will be questions to ask themselves - and the other schools.
The question the next Government should address is, what is the most useful form for the tables to take? How can they provide enough information to be useful, but not too much to overwhelm? How can baseline and value added information be included? What about numbers on free meals? Labour's plan for local, rather than national, publication makes sense, because most people will only need detailed information about schools near them. Those who need more, such as LEA planners, should be able to get the national version. Shorter lists of schools would mean that more details about each could be covered.
Used well, local tables could form a step toward school improvement, by pinpointing "benchmarks" for different types of school. Although the present Government (page 1) is now thought to be delaying plans for setting such targets, it did not seem to have these doubts when it funded a promising Grants for Education Support and Training (GEST) project in Kirklees. This initiative, in which like schools meet in clusters to discuss ideas and targets, could point the way forward for using comparisons of results to bring about school improvement.
Rather than bringing criticism and disgrace to disadvantaged schools, and allowing mediocre middle-class schools to coast, this system would help schools to improve and celebrate success.