Labour launches a charm offensive

A love-in between Labour and the Educational Institute of Scotland at the party's Scottish conference has led to assurances on a number of issues. Helen Liddell, Labour's education spokeswoman, promised a fringe meeting organised by the union that there would be better access to ministers. Labour would be as "genuinely consultative" in power as the party had been in drawing up its education policy.

Mrs Liddell was responding to Ian McCalman, the union's vice-president, who welcomed the final version of the document as "a significant improvement".

Mr McCalman also struck a positive note in looking forward to "a more fruitful relationship with government, by which we do not mean a cosy consensus where everyone is looking for the lowest common denominator. We believe in vigorous debate and discussion and we are mature enough to know that consultation does not mean we get our own way."

Mrs Liddell also made some conciliatory noises about funding, following the Shadow Chancellor's refusal to lift curbs on council spending. "Funding is the key to almost everything we are able to do in education," she said.

She acknowledged that despite the estimated #163;5 million Labour would find by phasing out the assisted places scheme to reduce class sizes there are no wide-ranging commitments to match the pledge of extra spending with which the Liberal Democrats have been trying to embarrass Labour.

But one option under consideration is to switch funds within the #163;14 billion Scottish Office spending block. Mrs Liddell admitted that this would cause "a hell of a row" as other projects were sidelined but added: "Education needs the money now."

George Robertson, the Shadow Scottish Secretary, added: "I will crawl through every nook and cranny of the Scottish Office budget we inherit to find even more money to invest in education."

Mrs Liddell raised expectations still further in her own speech when she confessed to being "appalled" at the conditions she found during recent visits to St Mary's primary in Duntocher and St Stephen's primary in Clydebank.

The #163;2 million which the Government had allocated to the three private Merchant Company schools in Edinburgh for assisted places would more than pay for improvements to these two primaries, she said.

Party sources confirmed that Labour's Treasury team is drawing up plans which would introduce private investment to clear the estimated #163;2 billion backlog in school repairs and maintenance throughout the United Kingdom. The education authorities' last estimate two years ago was that the cost of neglect in Scotland amounted to #163;500 million.

The concerted offensive to assure delegates that "Labour will make a difference" was reinforced in a speech by Tony Blair, the party's leader. But it had its limits. Mrs Liddell left her EIS audience in no doubt, for example, that she favoured appraisal though not "compulsory appraisal".

* Labour would order a study into the lessons which Gaelic-medium education units might have for other languages and would launch a special initiative to stimulate language teaching in primary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities, George Robertson told the conference.

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