UK diary – The purpose of league tables

I’ve been in the UK for three weeks now, and am about to board a plane home – wonderful trip, great people, lots of good contacts etc. but feel I’m ready for home now 🙂

I’ve blogged previously about the conversations I’ve had here about standardised testing and league tables as they’ve been used here in England – but it’s taken me until now to fully understand exactly what the purpose of league tables is. All was revealed just a couple of nights ago as I was relaxing after a series of meetings in London, watching episode 4 of the latest series of Torchwood on TV – the spin-off of the popular Dr. Who series.

I won’t spoil the programme for you, but just to share the excerpt from which I gained this profound understanding.

The context: An alien force is threatening to destroy the entire human species unless earth surrenders 10% of all the children on the planet to them.

The dilemma: How to select the 10%

The scene: members of the English cabinet are meeting to discuss the options to resolve this seemingly impossible situation, when one of them comes up with a solution that meets with general approval.

The script (abridged):

MP1 – we need to resolve the following questions, “how will be select the 10%, how will we transport them, and how will we sell it to the voters?”… We just need to decide what criteria we’ll use for selection.

MP2 – it could be random… if the criteria we use is demonstrably fair then we could defend ourselves…

MP3 – so you’re willing to risk your kids to make it look fair?

MP2 – so how else do we choose?

MP4 – we could do it alphabetically

MP3 – oh yes, thanks Mr Yates!

MP5 – could we limit it to just one loss per family? Every second born child…?

MP6 – that would take more time than we have.

MP5 – so, it would have to be one school at a time.

MP2 – (after several seconds of tense music) Look, I’m going to say what everyone else is thinking. If this lottery takes place, my kids aren’t in it.

[much debate and argument ensues, then the final piece from one of the MPs:]

MP2 -… the first responsibility of government is to protect the best interests if this country, right? Then let’s say it. In a national emergency a country must plan for the future, and discriminate between those who are vital to future stability and those who are not. Now that we’ve established that our kids are exempt, the whole principle of random selection is dead in the water. Now look – on the one hand you’ve got the good schools, and I don’t just mean those who are producing graduates. I mean the pupils who will go on to staff our hospitals, our offices, our factories –  our workforce of the future! We need them. Set against that you have the failing schools, full of the less able, the less socially useful – those destined spent a lifetime on benefits, occupying places on the dole queue- and in the prisons. Should we treat them equally? God knows we’ve tired and we’ve failed, and now the time has come to choose, And if we can’t identify the bottom 10% of this country’s children then what on earth are the league tables for?

Footnote: Sadly, the episode is only available for viewing on the BBC website if you’re resident in the UK, so I’ll have to wait for this series to reach NZ. It’s a pretty ‘black’ series, with an ending that’ll leave you aghast, but the plot with it’s interesting treatment of the perennial ‘world at war with aliens’ theme introduces some interesting new twists.

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