LIKE death and taxes, there's no escaping the school league tables. Armies of clerks collate the figures, number-crunchers sweat over ranking the results, and Scandinavian forests are felled so that we can all pore over every detail.
They are important to the Government, parents, and schools - for different reasons. Tales of the unexpected they are not: tables of raw results generally tell you more about a school's catchment area and the type of parents it attracts than the quality of the teaching.
But it takes a remarkable and well-informed parent to swim against the tide of propaganda in choosing a school, which is why a property company wanted to attend the government briefing on league tables this year. League tables, embedded in the English class system, sell houses for estate agents.
To its credit, the Government wants to make the system fairer, which is why this year's tables include rewards for schools which have taken in excluded pupils and - best of all - a prototype value-added table for sixth-forms.
Cut to Temple Moor high school in Leeds, perched between a council estate and middle-class suburbia, and reeling from finding itself at thetop of this table. "We have never come top of anything in our lives," said Barbara Owen, director of sixth-form studies.
There are many arguments to be had about the validity of different value-added approaches: the Government jettisoned one system, after a torrent of complaints from heads.
But if Labour genuinely wishes to raise standards of teaching, assessment and leadership, it must keep its promise of value-added tables for 2002 with a system which can be defended against any attack.
In rewarding effort and true improvement, it could make previously career-breaking schools attractive to ambitious teachers. It might even lure more graduates into the profession by demonstrating that teachers really do make a difference - a crucial consideration as PGCE applications fall behind last year, despite the financial inducement (see p 3).
For it is teachers who make schools better. And this year's tables, flawed as they are, do tell a story of overall, continuing improvement. More teenagers are getting five good GCSEs, A-level point scores are improving, and the proportion of school-leavers without qualifications continues to fall. Well done.