Lib-Dems urge early start for Pounds 1bn raid

But leaders are back-tracking on an extra penny on tax, reports Biddy Passmore.

Liberal Democrats remain wedded to higher spending on schools and universities, despite high-level moves to wean the party off its commitment to raise income tax by 1p to boost education spending.

The loudest applause of the Eastbourne conference session on education was won by Phil Willis, former headteacher and now MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, when he called on Labour to have the courage to invest in education.

"Bring forward the plannedPounds 1 billion raid on contingencies into this year, where our schools will derive the maximum amount of benefit," he declared.

"Above all ... have the courage if necessary to raise taxation in 199899 to deliver what the vast majority of the British public want you to deliver - the highest possible quality education service."

Liberal Democrat leaders, meanwhile, had been briefing journalists that the party's 1p income tax pledge was likely to be dropped before the next election.

But Don Foster, the party's education spokesman, said the policy had been to add 1p "if necessary". The extra money - an estimated Pounds 2 billion - was necessary at the time of the election, but it was impossible to say if this would still be the case in three years, he told The TES.

But Mr Willis warned against abandoning the tax commitment. Speaking to Liberal Democrat councillors on Wednesday, he said: "Don't let any of the senior members of our party get away with loose comments about ditching a commitment fundamental to the education policy we believe in."

Back in the conference hall, party spokesmen and delegates were united in condemning the Government's decision to impose tuition fees, dubbing the fees "a student poll tax". The conference passed a motion demanding free tuition up to first-degree level and calling for money raised by the three stakeholders in further and higher education - the state, employers and students - to be "ring-fenced" rather than disappearing into the Treasury pot.

Kay Bernard, a scientist at Bristol University, said she feared tuition fees would disadvantage both women, and scientists (two-thirds of whom came from low-income families, according to a recent study). She asked whether either group would welcome a Pounds 10,000 debt at the age of 21.

Earlier, delegates had reponded overwhelmingly to a call to "end the confusion and chaos" of the current system of transfer to secondary schools, in particular to overturn the Greenwich judgment that says LEAs do not have to give priority to children living in their area.

Moving the motion, Paul Burstow, MP for Sutton and Cheam, said that for a growing number of families it was "no longer a question of parental choice . . . more one of spoilt choice".

In his constituency, one in five pupils attending secondary school lived outside the borough, yet in February the council had been unable to offer places to 392 local children who wanted places in locally-managed schools.

Only one delegate spoke in favour of parents' cross-boundary rights: Keith Fitchett, deputy leader of Lambeth Liberal Democrats. Overturning the Greenwich judgment would be unfair to parents who lived near boundaries, he said.

"It's the 'dirty little secret of state education' that people buy homes near popular schools. The people who can't afford to do that would be the ones affected by the policy in this resolution. We've already seen in the USA the effects of education ghettoes in the inner cities; we mustn't do it here. "

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