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Labour stakes claim as teachers' party

Labour continued its "tough and tender" courting of the unions last week when the party's education spokeswoman told the Educational Institute of Scotland that all 49 Scottish Labour MPs had a "passionate commitment" to education but there was "no magic wand" to conjure up increased spending.

Helen Liddell, who ranged over a number of issues that have stirred the EIS to wrath since the appearance of Every Child is Special, Labour's consultative document, handled herself with assurance as she parried questions at the union's education conference in Dundee.

She welcomed the "positive criticism" the document had received, although she noted that some responses were "deadened by ideological myopia". The debate it had provoked showed "there is a hunger out there for raising standards ever higher". A Labour government would not take office content with current standards.

Mrs Liddell repeated pledges that Pounds 5 million will be switched from the assisted places scheme to reduce infant class sizes, and that the Pounds 30 million earmarked for nursery vouchers will be spent directly on increasing pre-school places in the local authority, playgroup and private sectors. The EIS would be invited to take part in Labour's proposed national early years development forum, she announced.

"Whatever you may have read in The Times Educational Supplement", she said, she was on the side of the good classroom teacher. That was why she wanted to create a "twin-track promotion structure" to enable dedicated and experienced teachers to remain in the classroom. Some of the best might become fellows of higher education institutions. The proposals also envisage sabbaticals to allow time away from the chalkface and more teacher exchanges.

Mrs Liddell also confirmed that the introduction of personal learning plans for pupils, a central plank in her programme, could only be phased in over 10-15 years. She had asked Labour authorities to do some "number-crunching" on the practicalities.

Questioned from the floor, Mrs Liddell said she would not abandon primary testing although she was not in favour of a "narrow, lock-step" approach. She also refused to back any change in the parental choice legislation although she said she would look at problems created by "magnet schools". She chided a Clackmannan primary head for referring to her "sink school".

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