OPINION: Let's relegate league tables

Peter Stanford, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

We remain a nation in the thrall of league tables, whether they be football, schools, hospitals or prisons. Of course, they are not quite what they seem. Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea are top of the league because they have more money to spend. And schools do well in the tables because they manipulate admissions policies.

If I needed any more evidence that this league-table madness needs to be purged as soon as possible, my visit last week to Brixton Prison convinced me. Brixton is officially Britain's worst jail. It comes bottom of the Government's performance table for prisons. Yet the point of this in regard to jails utterly escapes me. Since defendants do not have a choice when sentenced ("could I go to Strangeways, your Honour, I hear the food is excellent?") the whole exercise is bogus from the start.

Then there is the issue of how the tables are compiled. In the case of prisons it is done by measuring outputs - vans dispatched to court, letters answered, boxes ticked - rather than outcomes. A classic example is the worryingly high level of suicides in Britain's jails - currently running at two a week. These are taken into account in the charts, but no credit is given for the lives saved by dedicated prison officers.

What I found at Brixton were staff demoralised by being publicly branded as bad. Many are too ashamed to tell friends where they work. Yet for all the problems they face in an overcrowded, under-resourced inner-city jail, being regularly kicked by politicians who are out for a few votes, and struggling to deal with drugs and mental health issues, a large proportion were, I believe, doing a first-rate job.

Now we can't all tramp around prisons to prove the tables wrong, so the onus has to rest on government departments to stop trying to fool us all into believing that complex social problems can be tackled simply by placing one name above another. Lent is coming, when people traditionally give up some besetting weakness. Come on civil servants, how about giving up league tables?

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