Leading article: The power of league tables

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The Independent Online

The shadow children's secretary, Michael Gove, opened the week in which A-level results are published by calling into question not just the present exam system, but the system of league tables as well. He said Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, London, was to explore "how we can have league tales which aren't distorted by a focus only on a few, which aren't inflated by weak qualifications and which don't exclude the very best exams".

Mr Gove has a point – or rather, several. There can be little doubt that published league tables have encouraged schools to put the best possible gloss on their results, nor that some very good schools have effectively excluded themselves by choosing qualifications that are not recognised for the purpose of the tables. Nor can there be much doubt that the tables have produced distortions, including in the focus of some teachers. It should be recognised, though, that if even some pupils can be helped to improve their grades – crucially by attaining a C rather than a D – this is good for them individually, as well as for the score of the school.

The problems arise where the tables do not give an accurate picture of a school's comparative performance. And while we have some sympathy with Mr Gove's complaint about the equal weighting accorded to academic and non-academic subjects, the way he expresses it reveals a very traditional bias towards the academic.

The equal weighting was an attempt by the Government to give due recognition to practical and vocational qualifications, and so end the corrosive situation where vocational skills are seen as low-status, by pupils and by their parents. The equal weighting was a misguided way of changing that mindset; it has not worked.

The risk is that Mr Gove's many criticisms will be seen as an invitation for the next government to abandon school league tables altogether. That would be a thoroughly retrograde step. Schools must be required to provide as much information about themselves and their achievements as possible; it must be straightforward and standardised so that it can be compared. Information is power – and schools, however reluctantly, must share it.