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Island housekeepers unlikely to clean up

There's plenty of "clear blue water" washing around the Isle of Wight in the last week before its inhabitants decide the complexion of Britain's first fully-fledged unitary authority, but it is to be found in the sea rather than the Tory campaign.

Education has floated to the top of the campaign agendas of both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, but this is because of arguments over spending priorities rather than policy (grant-maintained schools, for instance, are never mentioned - there are none on the island and there has never even been a ballot).

It's true that the Tories are fighting under the traditional, if slightly tired, banner of "good housekeeping and cutting wasteful council bureaucracy", but otherwise the political waters are distinctly murky.

While other Tory councillors around the country tremble before forecasts of a tidal wave of Labour votes, the enemy here are the Liberal Democrats. They hold 29 seats on the county council, which has now absorbed two former borough councils, while the Tories have nine and independents five. The Labour party hardly registers as a blip on the political landscape, and is only putting forward 11 candidates on May 4. The local MP and MEP are Tories, but the Lib Dems have held the reins of local government for the past 14 years and are having to be careful, in the words of one of their candidates, "of the danger of becoming establishmentised".

Both parties agree that the Isle of Wight is perceived wrongly by outsiders as an idyllic offshore retirement colony of the affluent South-east. This is not actually classic Tory territory: unemployment is 16 per cent in winter and jobs are heavily dependent on tourism and defence industries - which have suffered cuts. A third of all families are on benefit and 24 per cent of children are eligible for free school meals. The council's budget is stretched by the largest population of over 65s in any county and by the necessity for services such as firefighting to be self-contained.

"There's also a leakage of ability and wealth to the mainland," says Steve Cowley, a dairy farmer who is defending a slim majority for the Lib Dems. "All this makes nonsense of the standard spending assessment and some difficult decisions have had to be made about our priorities."

School budgets have been earmarked as the "absolute priority" by the council this year, and while the teachers' pay award has not been funded directly, schools are getting 2.5 per cent extra to spend as they see fit. The cuts of Pounds 5.6 million the council needed to make to meet the Government's target of Pounds 92 million have come from roads, parks, educational administration - everywhere except schools and care in the community, which has also been cushioned.

Bob Gorley, the council's principal education officer for planning and resources, says that spending on the administration of education is "now down to about 2 per cent of the education budget. I'd love to know what the overhead costs are for the super-efficient privatised industries. This department has been cut back further than the bone - we're into the marrow."

While he defends the council's decision to prioritise in this way (which was supported by the Tories), he warns that further cuts to central services could push schools into opting out: "We paper over the cracks, but there's going to come a point when there's no credible authority left; the LEA won't be a club worth belonging to." The council still needs to save about another Pounds 1.5 million.

The Tories, however, accuse the Liberal Democrats of wasteful overspending over the past 14 years, which, they say, has resulted in poor standards and a dearth of equipment in schools. In a war of statistics, the Tories quote Audit Commission indicators which reveal lower than average spending on nursery education (38 per cent, though the Lib Dems say this figure should be 59 per cent) and a very poor GCSE pass rate (40.5 per cent). The Lib Dems argue that this figure is distorted because all pupils are entered for GCSE, whatever their ability, and say that there is no bureaucratic fat left to cut.

Out in the suburban drives and closes of Fairlee ward in Newport, Conservative Linda Masters was promising to provide nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, though the details were left vague. Her campaign leaflet also pledges a subsidy for public transport (the ferry to the mainland) - perhaps a first for the Tory party?

Mrs Masters discovered that while class size may not be a burning problem for the island's schools, the issue has taken root in parents' consciousness.

Life-long Tory voter Audrey Green, a mother of two children, was vigorously supporting her child's teacher, arguing that classes of 38 five-year-olds are unmanageable. "I'm not sure if I would support strike action - my husband works for Plessey and it never achieves anything when they do it - but I would vote for whoever is going to fight hardest for my child's future."

Linda Masters did not know the size of the majority held by the Lib Dem councillor whose ward she was fighting for, but said that it was "a winnable seat".

Liberal Democrat Steve Cowley's first encounter on the doorsteps was with a young mother passionately defending strike action over class sizes. "Teachers have to work extremely hard. Rosie (her daughter) should be going to school down the road, but the class sizes there are over 32, so I have to pay Pounds 57 a term for the school bus."

Vivienne Tosdevin, a school dinner lady, proposed a novel solution to education funding problems - take the money from the prisons. This was, after all, a local election, and there are three prisons on the island.

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