One 'performance art' best ignored

24th November 2000 at 00:00
I AM in a dilemma over school league tables. I was once asked by a newspaper to write an opinion piece on the subject. "What is your line?" they asked. I mused, thinking aloud, that it would probably be better if they weren't published at all.

There was a sharp intake of breath. That, they said, was a very peculiar position for a journalist to hold. Then they smartly put the phone down.

Certainly, all my prejudices as a journalist support the publication of pretty well anything. The thing that always struck me about Watergate was how inconceivable it was that any similar scandal could have been exposed over here. At all levels of the American public service, the instinct is to disclose information, and it was this that Woodward and Bernstein repeatedly exploited; here, the most harmless document or set of figures will be withheld until several layers of bureaucracy have agreed that the great unwashed can be allowed a peep at it.

I am quite clear that the public has a right to know what is done in its name and how its money is spent. It is also right to require schools to present their examination and test results in a standardised form.

Moreover, the results should be readily available to anybody who is interested in them, and they should automatically be given to prospective parents.

Heads will go to any lengths to avoid disclosure. When I was choosing a secondary school for my own children in the mid-1980s (by which time the requirement to make standardised results available already existed), the heads in the locality had agreed that they would give their exam details only to the most insistent parents and that nobody would be allowed to remove them from school premises.

If heads had behaved within the spirit of what was then the law, they would not now be saddled with leage tables. And it would be better if the tables were not published centrally. They have the effect of convincing everybody that this "performance" is all that matters about schools.

If the Department for Education puts league tables on its website, if newspapers devote whole supplements to them, if David Blunkett threatens with closure any school that has dropped to the bottom of the educational equivalent of the Courage Combined Counties League, parents will naturally assume that exam and test results are the best criteria for judgment. It is a waste of time to advise them, as the Independent did, not to "choose a school solely from league tables". If you cannot choose a school after reading an eight-page Independent supplement, when can you choose one?

I have an answer. Let us include statistics in the national curriculum. And let it be taught to children, by order of Her Majesty, that all statistics, from whatever source they may come, are to be distrusted. Any criminologist, for example, will tell you that the published crime figures are spurious; they tell you more about public reporting of crime and police recording of it than they could possibly tell you about the actual extent of crime.

Likewise, any newspaper editor will tell you that circulation figures are almost wholly bogus. Circulation has everything to do with the money spent on marketing and advertising, and nothing to do with editorial quality.

Moreover, any educational statistician will tell you in his cups that "value-added" school league tables will merely add another margin of error to what is already riddled with error.

So my solution to this dilemma is to say publish, but let parents be instructed that they are damned if they take any notice whatever.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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