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Labour coy as Lib Dems trumpet success

EDUCATION has loomed surprisingly large as the Westminster election campaign got off the ground this week - despite the fact that the service is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament.

The tension between the two political realms is bridged only by the importance of Westminster in setting overall public expenditure, which determines how much the Scottish Executive has available for services such as education.

But Lindsay Paterson, professor of educational policy at Edinburgh University, points out that the Executive has discretion over how it spends its pound;16 billion block, "so realistically there is very little chance of the outcome of this election affecting anything in Scottish education - unless, of course, there is a Tory victory".

One of the consequences of the devolved settlement has been the curious reluctance of Labour to claim credit for some of its educational achievements, such as the abolition of up-front tuition fees and the 23 per cent pay hike for teachers.

This may be to avoid embarrassment for the party south of the border, where there have been no such breakthroughs.

The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, have seized enthusiastically on their achievements along with Labour in the Edinburgh coalition in an attempt to demonstrate they can be an effective force in a UK government.

Nicol Stephen, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Education Minister, trumpeted his party's contribution as the Liberal Democrats launched their Scottish manifesto on Tuesday. This goes much further than the party's Labour coalition partners dare do, highlighting "tuition fees - gone in Scotland, still there in London" and "a fair deal for teachers - the envy of teachers in England".

The Liberal Democrats are promising to invest an extra pound;330 million a year in schools, colleges and universities out of pound;3 billion for the UK as a whole, funded by a penny increase on the basic rate of income tax.

Labour's manifesto, issued on Wednesday, largely restates existing commitments - the pound;116 million "new deal for schools" buildig programme, the pound;530 million additional capital investment for schools being built with private finance, 5,000 classroom assistants, more computers in schools and a sports co-ordinator for every secondary.

The party also pledges a mysterious 1,000 extra teachers, a figure shrouded in mystery given the teachers' settlement which provides for 4,000 new teachers by 2006.

In the wake of the Education Minister's strong endorsement of Catholic schools two weeks ago, Labour also promises to strengthen "the diversity of religions and cultural traditions that make up Scotland".

The Tories are the only one of the four main parties whose manifesto is not rooted in the public services. Their theme of "time for common sense in Scotland" repeats the refrain energetically pursued by Brian Monteith, the party's Scottish education spokesman, "to give parents choice and headteachers freedom".

Responsibility for schools would be removed from councils and handed to local boards with their own budgets under the Tory plan. Popular schools would be allowed to expand and HMI would be ordered to concentrate its efforts on schools with "real problems".

The Tories also commit themselves to a more generous deal for students and to privatising the universities where permanent endowment funds would remove reliance on state funding and political "interference".

The SNP issues its manifesto today (Friday) and will undoubtedly focus on its flagship policy of cutting class sizes progressively in the first three years of primary to 18, starting off with schools in the poorest areas.

The Nationalists will also call for a national convention of educational interests to act in part as a pre-legislative scrutiny body, and for investment in school buildings using a new public investment trust rather than private resources.

While the educational thoughts of the political parties have no relevance for a Westminster election, Professor Paterson suggests they could form the basis of manifestos for the Scottish parliamentary elections in 2003.

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