State educationists go to extraordinary lengths to resist the ranking of schools in what they disparagingly call "league tables". The Primary Principals Federation says its members might refuse to file results of new national standards tests unless there are safeguards to prevent them being used to rank schools.

These tests were a central plank of National's education policy at the last election. The intention was to vastly improve the information available to parents. Primary schools routinely test pupils with standard tests that tell teachers how the child rates among its peers.

But the results have not been routinely provided to parents, let alone made publicly available. The Government has promised to produce tests that permit wider use.

The tests ought to give parents a clearer picture of their child's performance than the phraseology of teachers' reports usually provides, but if they also permit a measure of the school's performance, what is the harm? What is wrong with a league table?

Educationists say a comparison of school results takes no account of the advantages, or lack of them, that pupils bring to school. A school that draws more of its pupils from homes that are well off and where education is valued will produce a higher range of marks than a school in a poorer area, though the latter school might be "adding more value" for its underprivileged clientele.

Educationists, in other words, are not looking at tests in the same way that parents do. The professionals, in so far as they accept comparative measurements, want to know the school is performing well enough for one in its social situation. Caring parents want to know their child is in a good school.

League tables are a perfectly legitimate tool from the parents' point of view. A good school for their child is one where high standards are maintained and if the pupils come with advantages, so much the better. If some schools have to work harder than others to bring most of their pupils to the desired standards, so be it. Parents want results.

Education Minister Anne Tolley is quite rightly refusing to give principals an assurance that results of the new tests will not be made public. Schools that withhold them would be breaking the law, she warns. The Labour Party's education spokesman, Trevor Mallard, is proposing some sort of compromise that might prevent data being compiled in a way that would allow schools to be compared and ranked by results.

Comparative school ratings are not the primary purpose of the tests, but they are a useful byproduct. National must not give way to the principals. Education has been dominated for too long by a profession which treats parents as children incapable of properly reading a league table or much else. Parents are aware of the concept of social advantage and quite capable of building it into their assessment of published results. But for them, it is not the last word of an assessment, as it seems to be for the profession.

State educationists need reminding that they are by no means the only profession that operates by a slightly different set of criteria than its clientele apply to it. Doctors would prefer that patients listen to lifestyle advice, engineers wish their customers would not cut corners, architects have to rein in their imaginations, newspapers serve a broad definition of the public interest.

Parents like league tables. They are helpful when it comes to choosing a school. They are also helpful in keeping the pressure on all schools to perform to the best of their ability. If the profession dislikes that pressure, or considers it unhelpful to educational effort, its customers disagree. And ultimately the customer, even of public education, is always right.