Ashdown puts schools before health

Clare Dean

Clare Dean talks to a cheerful leader of the only party prepared to spend extra money on education.

"Education is hurrah, three cheers, top of the agendas of all three parties, " said Paddy Ashdown as he attempted this week to regain the political high ground for the Liberal Democrats.

With all parties claiming education as a top priority, Mr Ashdown went one step further and said spending on schools would come before spending on the National Health Service.

The Lib-Dems are the only party to have pledged extra money for education - Pounds 2 billion, raised if necessary through a penny on income tax. They have already earmarked Pounds 900 million for nursery education and around Pounds 200 million for schools to spend on special needs, books and resources, but not buildings.

"We're not talking about replacing buildings. We have to prioritise," said Mr Ashdown.

This week he wrote to every Conservative backbench MP, calling on them to lobby the Chancellor to put investment in education at the heart of the Budget, and to back spending on schools above tax cuts.

"While there are legitimate debates about the right structure for education, and a range of ideas for raising standards, it ought to be common ground between the political parties that education needs and deserves a higher level of resources," he told them.

"You have the chance to change Government policy and to begin putting Britain on the right road."

He estimates that it will take between 30 and 50 years to repair the damage caused by successive education cuts and said that he believed some schools were now close to collapse. "Resources have been exhausted and I think the underlying viability of some schools might well be threatened."

His home county of Somerset will need a 5 per cent increase in education budgets next year to cover inflation and a 2.5 per cent rise in pupil numbers. "We will be making claims for something better than 5 per cent," he said.

In what he billed as his biggest education speech since the 1992 general election, Mr Ashdown this week told the London University Institute of Education that he did not believe in throwing money at problems.

But he added: "Go on to an estate where youngsters can't get training because the Government's cut the training budget, go to a school where there are more than 35 kids in a class, go to a village where there is no pre-school education and tell me that money's got nothing to do with it."

He attacked both Labour and Conservative policies on the Assisted Places Scheme which subsidises the independent-school fees of children from low-income families, saying they did not amount to strategies to invest in education. He added that: "I would not abolish the private sector. It is a vast educational resource. The question for us is how we can engage that resource to the greater benefit of the nation at large."

Don Foster, the Lib-Dems' education spokesman, has been talking to the major independent-school bodies about possible partnerships with local authorities. The ideas include sharing facilities, councils buying places at public schools for children with special needs, and even discussing whether it would be cheaper to buy independent places rather than build a new school.

Mr Ashdown dreams of an education service where parents take responsibility for their children's schooling and of a radically revamped 14 to 19 system with pupils following individual curriculum paths. He also wants a high-quality nursery service, all schools to have the financial flexibility enjoyed by the grant-maintained sector, and a computer-led technological revolution.

He has been working with the National Confederation of Parent-Teacher Associations about parent-school contracts and sees them as "a way of entrenching the parental responsibilities that go with the right to free education provided by the state - responsibilities that are too often overlooked."

He says that at the beginning of every school year parents and teachers should discuss a child's progress, their concerns and their side of the "educational bargain". This could involve the school providing extra help , agreeing a statement of behaviour expected from a pupil or hearing a child read at home.

Parents who did not abide by the contract would face "reasonable" sanctions though Mr Ashdown would not elaborate on these. But he said: "I don't believe that we need coercion, persuasion is the answer. I do not believe it would take long for the concept to become accepted as, for example, paying the TV licence, or not drinking and driving, or indeed, wearing school uniform."

He went further too than the Labour party on the information superhighway, arguing that every house and business should be linked up, not just libraries and schools.

"We have known for a long time that BT would be prepared to link up public-access points in return for lifting the ban on their entry into the entertainment market.

"But let's not sell ourselves cheap in cosy, sweetheart deals."

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