Another week, another set of league tables or, rather, performance data - the label which ministers prefer. Since the official information is produced in strictly alphabetical order, governments can blame the media for doing what they dare not do themselves - rank the institutions concerned.
When it comes to the 100 or so institutions and consortia which train teachers, though, ranking is well-nigh impossible - because the relative importance of the chosen indicators is, as yet, so unclear. What is the real meaning of the data presented on pages 22 to 25? Which is more significant in judging quality: ethnic mix, high pass rates or successful job placements? Individual indicators, too, are open to different interpretations. If a college has a low failure rate, does that mean that it is effective, or not tough enough? If its students enter with low A-level scores, should we be tut-tutting about falling standards, or congratulating the staff for giving disadvantaged mature students the chance to make something of themselves?
As schools have found, one of the most important functions of such information is as an aid to self-evaluation. Why are some colleges so much better at attracting young men to teach primary children? Why had nearly two-thirds of trainee secondary maths teachers at one college achieved a 2.1 or better in their first degree, while in a couple of university departments of education the figure was only 12 per cent? Slowly, these relationships will become clearer; no-one should rush to judgment. This first set of tables should be studied in conjunction with other information such as OFSTED reports, and there needs to be a vigorous debate concerning the significance of different criteria.
We know from the experience of schools that league tables have a polarising effect. Those institutions at the top of the list get the most promising students and become even better; the less good become unpopular and enter a downward spiral. These tables will be pored over by aspiring teachers and their advisers. Institutions which do not look good will find it even harder to recruit.
The resulting weeding-out will be painful; but it is necessary if the quality, status and, ultimately, pay of teachers is to rise. We still have some way to go in the process of identifying, fairly and objectively, those universities and colleges which are doing a good job - and those which are not.