For all the misery and nuisance they cause, league tables are a necessary part of public service

Schools, hospitals and care homes shouldn’t need to be put in tables. Unfortunately they do - so make the most of the information they provide

We are, at long last, better than Germany.

We’re worse than Finland, South Korea and Hong Kong. We are, it’s true, not better than Germany at everything. We are, it’s true, not better than Germany at all that much. But we are, according to the educational publisher, Pearson, better at schools than Germany. Our schools, in fact, according to Pearson, are the sixth best in the world.

The tests that Pearson did to make a nice league table for England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are different to the tests that Pisa, which stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment, have done to make league tables that don’t, if you’re in one of these countries, seem all that nice at all. In these tests, which only take place every three years, perhaps because they’re quite tiring, the UK came 16th in reading last time, and 28th in maths, and 25th in science. If you were a country like, say, Kyrgyzstan, you might think this was quite a good result, but you might think it wasn’t quite such a good result if you were the seventh biggest economy in the world.

Pearson look at things like how many children go on to university, which Pisa, apparently, don’t. And 42 per cent of British children do now go to university, which would certainly make you think that their teachers were doing a good job. But if you looked at the essays they wrote when they got there, or talked to some of the people who worked in universities, you might not be so confident. If, for example, you spoke to Stephen Magee, the vice principal of St Andrews, who said yesterday that it would have to “lower its academic standards” to get more students from deprived backgrounds, you might not think things were looking good at all.

Good news

And if you read the report from the Sutton Trust last week, which looked at the educational backgrounds of 8,000 people who appeared in the birthday lists of national newspapers, you might feel really quite depressed. When you discovered, for example, that 44 per cent of the people on the lists went to private schools, even though only 7 per cent of the population do go to private schools, and that 10 schools (out of nearly 4,000 secondary schools in the country) produced more than a tenth of what you could only call an “elite”.

But there is still good news. Schools, according to the latest Ofsted report, which was released yesterday, are getting better. Seventy per cent of schools, according to the report, are now “good”, or better. That’s four per cent more than three years ago, which is, of course, better than four per cent less. But it’s still not good enough. Even the man who wrote the report says it isn’t good enough. He thinks it isn’t “satisfactory” for schools to be “satisfactory”. He thinks his own report could be summed up as “could do better”.

The man who wrote the report, who’s called Michael Wilshaw, and who’s a “sir” outside the classroom too, knows “Ofsted” isn’t the kind of word that cheers a teacher up. He knows it can make teachers forget about the child who’s sitting in front of them, and the things they’re trying to teach them, and the interesting things the child might say. He knows it can make them forget about the stories, and the games. He knows, in fact, that it can make teachers forget about the teaching and think about the test. And he knows that teachers don’t like tests. They don’t like “teaching to the test”, or marking tests, or being put in league tables on the basis of tests. He knows, because he used to be a teacher, that teachers think teaching isn’t just about tests.

In this, they are very much like everybody else. They are, for example, like the people who work in hospitals and care homes, who didn’t decide to train as nurses, or work as healthcare assistants, because they liked ticking boxes on lists. These people didn’t decide to work on a ward, or in a care home, because they wanted to be put in league tables for how quickly they brought a bed pan, or wiped a bottom. These people think care isn’t about league tables and lists.

Stressful, irritating, vital

And they’re right. They’re right that league tables can make you forget about the person you’re meant to be looking after or teaching, and think instead about numbers, and boxes, and lists. And they’re right that you shouldn’t need them. Schools, and hospitals, and care homes, shouldn’t need to be put in league tables. People shouldn’t need to be put in league tables. But, unfortunately, they do.

If 30 per cent of the children in this country are in a school that’s only “satisfactory”, and if 20 per cent of the old people in this country are in care homes that don’t, according to a new report from the Care Quality Commission, provide basic care, and if 10 per cent of patients are, according to an NHS inpatient survey, unhappy with the care they get in hospital, then these schools, and hospitals, and care homes need to get better, and they need to do it fast. If you want to make things better, you need head teachers, and chief executives, who want to make them better. And there’s nothing like doing badly in a league table to make bosses want to make things better.

“This report,” says Sir Michael Wilshaw, “is fundamentally about the importance of leadership”. All reports, he might have added, are fundamentally about the importance of leadership. Good leaders know that people who are trusted to look after other people have to be held to account. They know that inspections are stressful, and irritating, and vital. They also know that there’s much, much more to the care of a human being, or the education of a child, than passing a test.