The Audit Commission's third round of performance indicators for local authorities this week (page 7) illustrates all too well the strengths and weaknesses of the league table approach.
First there is the limited nature of the measures used to produce "comparable" figures for such a wide range of local authority responsibilities. The indicators of performance in education in this exercise are reduced to four: the percentage of three and four-year-olds with a school place; expenditure per pupil on primary and secondary pupils and the percentage of statements issued within the 18 weeks laid down in the code of practice on special educational needs.
Are these really the crucial factors for judging the delivery of an effective education service or even useful proxies when taken with the separate school performance tables? It is not self-evident, for instance, that scoring high on percentage of under-fives in school is necessarily a good thing if this means three and four year-olds in unsuitably staffed and equipped infant classes. The commentary seems to refer to school and nursery places as though they were the same thing.
Expenditure per head does not begin to distinguish the provident from the inefficient. And yet in its role as public spending watchdog the commission itself recently complained of Pounds 100 million being wasted on empty school places. Should it not now be telling us where? And, important though it is, the speed with which statements are issued is not necessarily any indication that children's needs are being met or that parents are being satisfied.
That said, there are signs that the lowest scoring authorities in previous years have improved; a testimony, perhaps, to the power of league tables to stir failing bureaucracies into action or at least to expose their performance to the electorate and to the councillors who are supposed to keep them up to scratch. But, as with school league tables, movement is decidely less upward among authorities languishing in mid-league positions.
What this illustrates is the limited effect of a shame-and-blame culture. Public pillorying may have some impact on the very worst but only thorough-going professional commitment can ensure service standards that are second to none.