I'd rather sacrifice my children to my political beliefs than for the sake of an A-level grade or two
Another bloody section drops out of my newspaper. What is it? An "East Timor - the new Bali" holiday section? A guide to designer beach huts? A special supplement devoted entirely to the misfortunes of female hacks who, unlike any other women in the world, have got divorced, had a baby or, worse, had a disappointing manicure? Is it, I ask myself with excitement, the broadsheet version of "The Lucky Wallet"? No . Of course it isn't. It's a whole section devoted to league tables.
This time it's primary schools. As if I cared. I live in a "rotten borough". I know this because these dumbed-down lists keep telling me. My daughters go to state schools. I used to think that this was perfectly normal. I now realise that putting your children through the state system is equivalent in some circles of saying that you ritually abuse them at weekends. I suppose I am one of those awful people who, unlike Tony Blair or Harriet Harman, are "prepared to sacrifice my children" for the sake of my political beliefs. Which, if you ask me, is a helluva lot better than sacrificing them for the sake of an A-level grade or two and a career in the Civil Service or whatever the correct aspirations are meant to be.
Obviously, I am an unfit mother in that my main concern is not the percentage of 11-year-olds who reach level four (whatever that is) in science, but my children's happiness. One day we read that children are more anxious and depressed than ever before. The next day we get another stupid league table. Parental anxiety is passed on to children, and that makes parents very worried indeed.
There are many and serious objections to league tables. No one knows when like is truly being compared with like. No one knows exactly who or what these measurements are for. No one really knows what to do with them when they are published, except move their poor kid out of one school into another. Teachers don't like them. They don't function as a guide to how your child is doing. Kids are stressed out by them. My objection is far cruder. I have league-table dyslexia. I can't understand them. Perhaps I can get a special grant to help me.
I can't even understand the advice given on how to read them. Apparently one pointer as to your children's happiness at school is whether they want to go there in the mornings. Are children no longer allowed such a thing as a personality? Some children love school and some do not and there is nothing a league table can do about that.
My eldest daughter loved school from the minute she got there, precisely because it was not like home. It was ordered and rule-bound and everyone had their own peg for hanging up their own coat. "Can't we have that, Mummy?" she used to beg. My youngest doesn't like school because it is not like home. You cannot watch TV all day. You have to get dressed and they will keep interrupting your far more interesting fantasies with boring information about numbers and letters. Should I whisk her out and send her somewhere private to make her happier? No, I would know there is something well and truly wrong with her if she liked school. I always thought school was pretty awful myself. Why should it be any different now?
Yet the league tables say more than they should about our education system. It makes a fetish of information at the expense of any real understanding of what to do with it. Debate has been replaced by lists, idealism by aggregated scores on tests that teachers don't know how to mark. As schools are forced to jostle for position, inevitably little children must jostle with each other, their parents grooming them for SATs. Or are they PhDs? It's hard to tell the way some people carry on.
I have sat in meetings with some of these people and the question I always want to ask them is: "Just how clever do you want your child to be?" What is all that exam-passing masquerading as intelligence for? To make money? To make their child a better person? Or just to make them top of the class? People start worrying about schools before their baby is born. Do they consult the league tables before they conceive? Has any middle-class person ever had an average child, I wonder? Can they all be immensely gifted, but somehow bored or not stretched or just not that academic because of the school they go to?
Emotional intelligence, creativity, interpersonal skills are all too sissy and vague to be reflected in something as hard as the league tables. It's not that I underestimate the value of reading and writing - how could I when it pays my bills? - or of maths and science. It's not that I don't want my kids to do well. It's just that I think there is more to life than the six hours a day they spend in the classroom.
League tables represent the narrowness of the debate about education in this country. Even if these lists reassure the middle classes, they represent mediocrity not meritocracy. How come the left, which once denounced the school system as the apparatus of an oppressive state, now thinks that schools themselves should be more oppressive than ever? Have all the visionaries been replaced by statisticians ? Are we so class-ridden that we fear our children will be contaminated if they are in the same classroom as kids from other backgrounds?
All I know is that what is being done in the name of education is not what I would call education at all. It is about fear and pettiness and deliberate social exclusion. Any truly educated person will know just what to do with the league tables. Teach your children how to a make a fire out of them. Watch their little faces light up as the flames leap up and you dance around chanting "education, education, education".
The writer is a "Mail on Sunday" columnist