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No hugs from cuddly Brian

... while in Perth, the Tories accentuate the Education Minister

The Scottish Conservatives made education a flagship debate on Saturday, in an attempt to continue rebuilding a cuddly image with the profession.

Brian Monteith, the party's senior education spokesman, combined a robust defence at its conference in Perth of almost 20 years of Tory policies in government with demonising Labour's record over the past 20 months.

"Only one worse thing than Brian Wilson could have happened to Scottish education, and that was Helen Liddell," Mr Monteith declared. The Education Minister "whispers sweet nothings" to teachers but will eventually abandon them, he warned.

The debate focused on what Mr Monteith called the "iniquity" of charging students for tuition and the "crowning cock-up" of free tuition for the fourth year of a Scottish degree for everyone except those in the rest of the UK.

"And the money does not reach the institutions. It goes to the Scottish Office. This year pound;19 million was raised but funding rose by only pound;4 million. Where is the other pound;15 million. It is a tax on learning, a tax on ambition, a tax on knowledge - it's Tony's treacherous tax."

Murray Tosh, a principal history teacher in Ayrshire and a Holyrood candidate in Cunninghame South, made it evident why the party thinks its alternative of an annual pound;1,000 "Saltire scholarship award" is such a good idea.

"It doesn't just protect students," Mr Tosh said, "but it shows the Scottish Tories are back and that we are determined to adopt Scottish solutions to Scottish problems."

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the former education minister and Holyrood candidate for Edinburgh West, is trying to keep the issue alive by introducing an abolitionist Bill in the Lords. Like Mr Tosh, he has a wider interest: he argued that fees were not just "an artificial barrier to opportunity" but a new tax on middle-income families.

Mr Monteith promised the Tories would press for the reintroduction of nursery vouchers, an end to "clutter" in the primary curriculum, more powers for heads and school boards, a pay review body for teachers, a strengthened General Teaching Council, more sport in schools, school discipline units and credits for training and modern apprenticeships.

The latest opinion polls suggest they will have a long wait.

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