Why does David Cameron ruin a perfectly good argument with some petty partisan point-scoring? Today's article by the PM in the Daily Telegraph argues that some schools in leafy suburbs and shires perform less well than they should do, and are a bit complacent about it. All of which is true. It is also the case that the coalition are publishing more data than before, but it is nonsense to suggest that this data was deliberately 'kept under wraps' by the Labour government.
In fact, Labour greatly increased the amount of data that was published about schools, including in the league tables. It introduced measures of school improvement, as well as raw data. It also made available plenty of information to the Fischer Family Trust and other organisations that provide most schools with targets - those that strive for the top quartile in FFT are the ones that are not failing their students. With freedom of information, there was plenty of other information available too.
But there is a balance to be struck here. There is a good reason to have some limit to the number of elements in the league tables if they are to be readily understood. People should be encouraged ro read them alongside Ofsted reports. Newspapers and other media rarely publish all the data as it is. The issue for Government is to decide where the focus should be if such publication is to drive improvement. Michael Gove has already accepted the measure introduced by Labour of five good GCSEs including English and Maths as desirable for at least half of students in all schools, and as a goal for 80% of all students. This was a new measure introduced by Labour in 2005 as a way of ensuring that all pupils were entered in the basics. Together with floor targets, it has driven substantial improvement, including in London.
Cameron is right that there may be a temptation to focus on D-C borderline students. But this is not a bad thing in itself: schools certainly should ensure that students heading for a D are helped to achieve a C, as this will be worth much more to them in later life, But, of course, they should equally ensure that B/A borderline students work for an A. Any good school will do this, in part because of the revolution in data and individual targeting introduced by Labour. And Ofsted should pick up on it if it isn't happening.
But there is a separate issue about the effect of some of the new measures being introduced by the Conservatives, and it is not obvious that they have got these right. The English Baccalaureate could have a beneficial impact if it sees more academically minded students taking a foreign language, and an earlier push by Labour has already seen a big uplift in triple science, which is continuing. But while students should learn history (my own degree subject) and geography, it is by no means obvious that they will be of greater benefit to every student than engineering, technology or computer science. The only difference is that the former appear in the new league table measure at the expense of the latter. League tables can create perverse incentives no matter the intentions.
Equally, it is important that the PM's drive doesn't prevent us from seeing the wood for the trees. There is a very good reason to focus on the five good GCSE measure for weaker schools, and it has been the backbone of many academy improvements and those in London. But introduce too many measures, without any sense of their respective importance, and it becomes a lot harder for parents to compare schools. This happened with Labour's Contextual Value Added measure that the coalition is replacing with a less complex measure of value added. So, it is good that the new league tables will show us how well schools are working for pupils at different attainment levels. But let's make sure that in the process we don't substitute a fog of statistics for true focus.