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Holyrood new boys hand in their jotters

WE KNOW it's all about "education, education, education". The Holyrood contest has effortlessly adopted Tony Blair's 1997 election mantra.

And so it proved on Tuesday night when the Educational Institute of Scotland organised a campaign hustings in the Ochil constituency, or Greater Alloa as it might be called. A highly civilised and well-attended affair in Alloa town hall, it was conducted under the benign chairmanship of John Patton, the union's vice-president and Clackmannan association secretary.

The four candidates, we can report, can certainly read. They delivered faultless recitations of their manifestos. Nothing was left out. Labour's Richard Simpson even sneaked in a reference to SVQ level II.

Three were keen to ingratiate, pressing home the educational equivalent of the adopted Scot's Highland grannie.

The Liberal Democrats' Jamie Mar and Kellie (aka Earl of) says he is a former community education worker, Tory Nick Johnstone revealed he "sleeps with the problems of Scottish education every night" as he is married to a teacher and Dr Simpson is an honorary professor at Stirling University where (perhaps usefully for an election candidate) he helped set up an anxiety and stress clinic.

But veteran campaigner and former MP for the area, the SNP's George Reid, failed to disclose anything educational in his closet. He was content to empty his cupboards on the high moral ground. The "moral issue" for the electorate, he repeatedly said, was between "social democracy with the SNP and post-Thatcherism with new Labour".

This high moral tone clearly began to grate on Labour's impressively well-briefed man who had a difficult enough job as the Government's defender-in-chief. Homing in on the SNP's "penny for Scotland" tax plans and the attacks on tuition fees, Dr Simpson exploded: "I think it's immoral to tax the low paid and pensioners to abolish tuition fees for those earning over pound;35,000 a year."

Tuition fees, class sizes and educational funding were the issues decreed for the evening by vice-president Patton. Narrowly focused, they none the less sparked a wide-ranging if familiar discussion - covering issues from the private finance initiative to adult illiteracy.

Having torn strips off each other for most of the evening, Mr Reid concluded that the proceedings of the new parliament must be "consensual". Mr Patton translated this into the traditional EIS plea for politicians to listen to the punters.

Then came the ultimate admission to the audience from the placid young Mar and Kellie that "you know far more about these things than I do".

Give that man a peerage.

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