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Let's Replace Ofsted With an 'Office for Subject-Centred Education'

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Michael Gove, the UK education secretary, recently announced a cull of over 3,000 British 'vocational' qualifications. From 2014, these 'Mickey Mouse' qualifications will no longer count towards the league tables and compliant schools will not teach what won't make them look good.

This 'bonfire of vocational qualifications' is another of the very good things that the Lib-Con coalition has done for education, such as the abandonment of the much vaunted 14-19 Diplomas, and the 'bonfire of the education quangos', mostly from a list suggested by Tom Burkard in a Centre for Policy Studies publication School Quangos: A blueprint for abolition and reform.

In the latter case, neither Burkard, nor the government were thorough enough, leaving Ofsted alone, and they simply forgot about small fry like the Institute of Learning (IfL), the 'professional' body for further education teachers. Belatedly the coalition government has issued a press release announcing that it will be following the interim advice of Lord Lingfield's independent review of Professionalism in Further Education and will abolish the compulsory membership requirement and remove the gatekeeper functions from the IfL. It is time that they recognised that Ofsted is not part of any solution to improving education in the UK. It is part of the problem.

Not abolishing Ofsted was a failure of nerve that expressed a basic fear of bringing this 'independent' body into the Department for Education and therefore publically taking full responsibility for the direction and evaluation of education. This is despite the fact that there is hardly anyone in the UK who truly believes that Ofsted is not a government body.

The Lib-Con government is rarely given sufficient credit regarding what it has done to restore meaning to education, and to reverse the undermining of education that occurred particularly under New Labour but also during previous Tory governments. Most importantly, they have broadly emphasised the importance of subject-centred education (albeit without thinking it through in a philosophical way). It's refreshing to hear Gove say that poor kids are as capable of academic education as rich kids. This sort of talk about education has not been heard much in recent years.

The failure to get the recognition it deserves for its education initiatives is partly because of the dislike many have for it politically. But the government's policies are also both inconsistent and lack philosophical coherence. This is not entirely their fault. They are continually advised by the educational and academic status quo. With few exceptions, wherever the Lib-Con government turns for 'evidence' and advice it comes across positions that reflect the contemporary philosophy of education that considers traditional or liberal 'education' to be elitist and old-fashioned. It is believed to be out of date in today's changing social and economic world, which many think (wrongly) just requires young people to emerge from education with sets of dispositions, attitudes and skills.

This has resulted in children being given courses in 'emotional literacy' and 'learning to learn' or whatever their teachers think will motivate them because it is 'relevant'. They then dress these time-wasting activities up as 'subjects'. The cull of 'vocational' courses reveals this most clearly. The courses being culled are not 'vocational' at all. They are desperate attempts to produce a 'relevant' curriculum that will keep children occupied. They are courses that express an attitude to education that embodies the belief that as children cannot be educated properly, therefore they have to be contained instead.

Such attitudes simply won't cut it. If you are to genuinely see yourself as a teacher, you should hold two things to be true. Firstly, that education means an initiation into what Matthew Arnold called 'the best that has been known and thought in the world', in other words, an initiation into human culture. This epistemological focus means that you must defend a subject-centred curriculum. Second, it means that you must believe that all children can be educated.

If you believe in a subject-based curriculum and don't think that all children can be educated, the result is elitism - an education for a few. On the other hand, if you think all children can be educated but do not believe in subject-centred education, then any fad and fashion will do instead. Education can be focussed on children's emotions or upon a rag bag of skills. Most popular with teacher trainers and Ofsted at the moment is the game of 'assessment for learning' in which teachers are expected to give over what they learn to the children who, of course, haven't a clue.

If the Lib-Con government had more of a clue, they would make another cull of academic advisors and educational consultants who don't believe in making subject-centred education available for all children. They would equally have the courage to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a departmental 'Office for Subject-Centred Education' (Ofsced). The title alone would give direction to teachers, parents and begin to create the possibility of a real education for the next generation of children.