Do league tables really work?
Obviously, as a means of determining whether one group of men is better at kicking/throwing/hitting a ball than another group of men they are nonpareil. But when it comes to more important issues, such as our health, our children's education, and now our efforts to tackle climate change, does publicly ranking organisations' performance really drive improvements, or does it just demoralise the losers?
As the son of two teachers growing up in the nineties, the merits of league tables, which were at the time being introduced for schools across the UK, was a source of considerable debate around the Murray dinner table.
My parents were forced to take a fair degree of professional interest in the annual league tables, often resulting in pride one year and dismay the next as their schools' fortunes fluctuated.
They were also painfully aware that any improvements that the publication of league tables delivered were at least partly offset by the iniquities inherent to the naming and shaming of struggling schools.
There was always the fear amongst my parents and their colleagues that the publication of the league tables would create a self fulfilling prophecy that further opened up the gap between the best and worst schools - a situation that many education experts believe has subsequently come to pass.
In essence, pushy middle class parents would make sure their children, who were statistically more likely to deliver stronger academic results in any case, got into the schools near the top of the league table. This would in turn make it easier for those top schools to maintain their position, while also providing them with a stronger position from which to apply for additional funding for facilities, equipment and the like.
As a rule, my parents schools probably benefited from this arrangement given they were always pretty well ranked in the league tables and received consistently good inspection reports, but that did not stop them questioning the wider merits of the league table system.
Moreover, there were similar question marks hanging over the efficacy of the league tables themselves.
My father was head of a relatively small primary school, so in some years the whole school's position in the league table would be determined by a group of just 12 or so 11 year olds. In such a small group pass rates could change dramatically from year to year based on the performance of just one or two pupils. The school could jump up and down the league table from year to year based on a minute change in its exam performance.
More than a decade on the government appears to have finally acknowledged some of these concerns and has just set out a new set of proposals to ensure school league tables are based on a wider set of criteria than straight exam results. But that does not mean that its love affair with league tables is over and fears are now mounting that the same problems associated with school and NHS league tables could soon afflict the government's Carbon Reduction Commitment (CRC).
As has been widely reported, the Carbon Reduction Commitment will not only require firms to report on their carbon emissions and energy use, it will also rank them in a league table demonstrating which organisations have performed best and worst.
The not unreasonable hope is that those that end up at the bottom of the league table will be shamed into taking action to curb energy use, while the system of financial bonuses and penalties that accompanies the league table will also provide firms with a fiscal incentive to cut their carbon emissions.
But will it work?
The problem is that shame is a funny thing. I don't want to reveal too much about my own moral compass, but public condemnation tends to have two diametrically opposed effects on people. Some will act swiftly and decisively to rectify their mistakes, others will decide it is not really worth the effort and embrace the "no one likes us, we don't care" philosophy beloved of football fans.
It is easy to envisage some of those firms languishing at the bottom of the league table deciding to take the financial hit and ignore any condemnation that comes their way. We could even see self-styled mavericks such as Ryanair's Michael O'Leary revelling in a poor carbon rating and using it promote his opposition to green taxes and climate change legislation.
The government plans to combat this by steadily increasing the size of the bonuses and penalties paid through the CRC. But such a move only risks a scenario already familiar to teachers across the UK, whereby those organisations that need the least help receive an extra boost, while the poorest performers are penalised still further.
Moreover, as with school league tables, the system will only work if the rules governing the league are beyond reproach and accepted by all parties. This is certainly not the case with the CRC at the moment with high profile companies such as BT warning that the legislation's credibility is fatally undermined by its failure to recognise investments made in renewable energy technologies. The government will never successfully shame companies into action, if those languishing near the bottom of the table can point to reporting rules that make the whole exercise worthless.
The basic premise of the CRC is admirable, but there are plenty of potential pitfalls awaiting it when it comes into force next year and it will be interesting to see how widely the new league tables are supported.
It might run counter to the capitalist principle of rewarding those who perform best, but given the main aim of the CRC is to cut emissions across the entire the economy there is a strong case for a completely different system of rewards whereby it is those that end up at the bottom of the league that receive the extra money they need to invest in energy efficient technologies.
Such an approach would seem weird to those used to the winner-takes-all mentality of European sports leagues, but it would also be familiar to anyone who follows US sports and their annual draft system, whereby the teams that perform worst get first pick on the next wave of promising players from the college leagues.
Of course, the government would be reluctant to seen to incentivise failure and is unlikely to change the CRC at this late date, but it will have to keep a very close eye on whether the concept of league tables helps or hinders efforts to cut carbon emissions.
After all, the results of the Premier League each year do not really matter in the grand scheme of things, but the success of our efforts to cut carbon emissions, and educate our children, does.
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