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Fewer pupils, more play

Michael Shaw reports on the Liberal Democrats' vision for education as revealed at their annual conference

In the bright future dreamed up by the Liberal Democrats, infants would be taught in tiny classes of 15 and spend their days enjoying lessons that "focus on play and exploration".

But the cuddly vision was too much for some delegates at the party's annual conference in Bournemouth this week. One councillor spluttered that parents would move their children to private schools in droves if they felt they were spending their time playing rather than learning English and maths.

However, such opposition was rare. The party pledged that it would cut class sizes to 20 for infants and to 25 for eight to 10-year-olds if it were elected.

This feat would be achieved partly by spending some of the pound;1 billion the party would save by scrapping the Government's new "baby bonds" and partly through the fall in pupil numbers.

Phil Willis, the party's education spokesman, said it would then reduce infant class sizes to 15 if it gained a second term.

Fewer pupils would be a better way to motivate teachers than increasing their pay, he said.

"I have always envied the private sector for their key selling point, which is their small class sizes," Mr Willis said. "It seems to me that the children who need the greatest level of attention are those that end up in the largest classes, particularly at primary."

Mr Willis said the switch to a more playful form of education for infants was also practical. "We are not talking about children doing nothing but play up to the age of seven," he said. "But talk to most primary teachers and they are saying that children are starting formal learning before they are capable of doing it."

Earlier, in a chat-show style question and answer session, party leader Charles Kennedy said that the Lib Dems' views on education resonated with voters.

Delegates to the conference certainly seemed clued-up on the subject, packing an education quiz to answer such tricky questions as "Who are the chief executives of Becta, the TTA and the GTCE?"

However, it is unlikely that Lib Dem canvassers will talk much about schools on the doorstep. Even the party's education team agreed its chief selling points would be its opposition to the Iraq war and university tuition fees.

One schools issue which did divide the delegates was whether they should back specialist schools and academies. They voted 149 and 102 to remove mention of the two school types from a motion stating that the party would ensure "diversity of provision through academies, specialist schools and other schools".

Julia Goldsworthy, prospective parliamentary candidate for Falmouth and Camborne, tried in vain to stop the amendment, pointing out that it might suggest - incorrectly - that the party planned to abolish the schools.

But delegates were more impressed by speakers who argued that academies and specialist schools were of little use in rural areas and forced children to decide their careers at 11.

Liz Leffman from Whitby said: "How many of us know what we want to be when we were 11? My choice was between becoming a ballet dancer or a surgeon.

I've done neither."

Policy pledges

* Cut class sizes to 20 for infants and 25 for eight to 10-year-olds.

* Reform education for five to seven-year-olds so it focuses on play and exploration.

* Ensure children are only taught by teachers who are qualified in the relevant subject or age group.

* Replace the national curriculum with a simpler "minimum curriculum entitlement" to give teachers far greater freedom.

* Rebuild and renovate all further education colleges as well as all secondary schools.

* Create an Office for Fair Access in each authority to make school admissions fairer.

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