This rank stupidity

7th November 2003 at 00:00
So there are going to be new league tables for 14-year-olds. That means each national newspaper spending an extra pound;50,000 on paper when they come out, which is good news for the Norwegian tree industry, though bad news for the environment. The only consolation is that most people throw such supplements away after a cursory glance. At least the tons of paper will soon be recycled.

I am astonished that the Government is still gung-ho about the wretched things, papping on deliriously about "standards", as if the two are linked.

Most Oxbridge colleges - not exactly laggards when it comes to high achievement - are unenthusiastic about league tables of finals results, knowing, like everyone else with two or more brain cells to rub together, that their limitations far outweigh their benefits.

League tables polarise communities. As affluent parents head towards top-scoring schools, children from less well-off families find themselves in crumbling and neglected ruins. It's survival of the fattest, so to speak. The limo chain for Richville high will be leaving shortly. Those heading for Crappington college should set off walking now, in case the exhaust fumes slow them up.

What is worse, people will do whatever is necessary to move up the table, whether it makes educational sense or not.

David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell showed, in their seminal book Rationing Education, how schools target children at critical borderlines and spend less time with the most and least able. This may be a good deal for those at the passfail margin, but it is rotten news for the rest.

The criteria for league-table credits screw up the curriculum. If maths and English figure prominently, then arts and other subjects will be neglected, for they earn no brownie points. Make the criterion "five GCSE grades A* to C" and pupils will be entered for a GNVQ in nose blowing if it counts as multiple GCSE passes. Change instead to "average number of GCSEs per head" and bright pupils will be forced to sit several subjects they don't need, just to bump up the average.

There are several league tables for universities. Some weight "quality of accommodation" alongside "A-level entry grades", "library books" and "food", as if these are not only equivalent but capable of being aggregated. Universities go up and down, according to the criteria used. If "class of degree" figures, you might as well give everyone a first and come top.

Just as much fiddling goes on in other fields. When "throughput" is league-tabled in the National Health Service, hospitals bundle half-stitched patients out of the back door. Waiting lists magically shrink as patients are re-categorised or laundered in some way. You could earn a fortune driving an unmarked van and picking off those in the middle of the queue. Make "solution of crimes" a league table issue and some hapless drunk will probably confess to parking on a double yellow line and then ask for 65 bank robberies to be taken into account.

If league tables are the answer, maybe we should let them invade all of our lives, not just public services. How about ranking your family? Granny comes top of the league, Uncle Joe bottom, relegated to the garden.

Criteria? It hardly matters, so long as there is a first and a last.

Why don't we have a league table of deputy heads with the biggest feet? Utterly pointless, but in keeping with the empty folly of these things. Or tidiest stock cupboards? Most glamorous chairs of governors? Stupidest lay inspectors? Tallest dinner assistants? Most irascible school crossing patrol wardens?

What about a league table of the daftest educational wheezes? Top of the league, with 500 idiot points, must be the Government setting up two committees to look into the problems of duplication. Second, with 499 idiot points, is the 117-item checklist for four and five-year-old children, still taking up far too much time of busy reception teachers, as they wander round with clipboards to see if little Alfie understands his own culture and that of other people.

We could spread it around the world, to all fields. Which bishop has saved the most souls? Where does Fagin figure in the league table of pickpockets? Who is top of the international bum-scratching league (has two divisions, "speed" and "elegance")?

Was Michelangelo the slowest ceiling painter? Probably. If only he had used Dulux and a big brush, he could have been top of the painting and decorating league instead of bottom. That way he would have avoided being put into special measures. Serves him right for not knowing how to play the league-table system.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today