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'Go pick a fight with Gordon Brown'

David Henderson reports from the SNP conference in Inverness, whereNicola Sturgeon told Sam Galbraith to stop picking on teachers and..

Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, is no friend of the education system -just another teacher basher.

Nicola Sturgeon, shadow minister in the Scottish Parliament, made the claim while backing a more consensual approach to making policy. She told SNP delegates that Mr Galbraith had deliberately provoked confrontation with teachers and had brought the system closer to industrial action than at any time in the past 10 years. "The teaching profession and the education system are indivisible, and you cannot attack one without hurting the other."

The current dispute was about conditions and standards, not pay. A central proposal was to raise composite class sizes from 25 to 30, "a simple money-saving exercise to pay for other parts of the offer". Before the election Labour had pledged to cut class sizes, but the offer to teachers would now increase them.

Ms Sturgeon said the minister should challenge the Chancellor to release more money for Scottish education instead of attacking teachers. Labour was spending less on education as a proportion of national income than the Tories. Gordon Brown was sitting on a war chest of anything between pound;10 and pound;22 billion to bribe people before the next Westminster election.

"Instead of picking a fight with Scottish teachers, pick a fight with Gordon Brown and get him to properly fund Scottish education," she advised.

Ms Sturgeon was set to repeat her arguments in the Parliament yesterday (Thursday) during a debate on the dispute initiated by the SNP. She claimed that the minister had so far refused to discuss the issue.

During a fringe meeting organised by the Educational Institute of Scotland, she accused ministers of a "campaign of misinformation" on the local authorities' offer. The pay deal was not "particularly generous" - and teachers had voted so decisively against it because they feared the impact on standards in the classroom.

Ms Sturgeon said Mr Galbraith should have stepped into the dispute earlier and put more money on the table to resolve the impasse between the authorities and unions. "The committee of inquiry is a red herring and simply a device to get it off Sam Galbraith's desk in the short term. It is not a solution," she said. "He has yet to explain why by May next year this committee, operating under the same conditions as Cosla, will be able to come up with an offer any more acceptable to teachers than the one that 98 per cent have just rejected."

During the main conference debate Bill Ramsay of the trade union section - and a member of the EIS national executive council - said that New Labour had picked up the Thatcherite ideological torch. "Never before in the long history of Scottish education has the gulf between those in government and those who teach been so wide," he protested.

The entire teaching profession had rejected the pay and conditions' reforms backed by the minister. Mr Ramsay promised the SNP would listen to teachers and parents and work with them.

Colin Campbell, MSP and retired secondary head, said teachers had been "bludgeoned over the past 15 to 20 years". They were more professional now than they had ever been, but they were still being attacked.

Graham Sutherland, an Edinburgh EIS member, said there was "deep dissatisfaction and resentment in the teaching profession". He accused the educational establishment of being out of touch with teachers. Education needed "serious money" he said - "and if we're going to put in serious money, we need independence".

Delegates want MSPs to pressure the Parliament to widen the basis of policy-making before legislation is introduced.

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