Parties play spot the difference

The under-fives and early primary years have shot to the top of the political agenda with the four main Scottish parties pledged to provide additional investment.

But, while the manifestos reveal the remarkable conversion that has persuaded the parties to give pre-school education top priority, the opposition parts company on Tory plans to extend nursery vouchers throughout Scotland with an extra Pounds 30 million.

The SNP, whose manifesto was the last to be launched on Monday, puts a price of Pounds 180 million to provide a nursery place for every three and four-year-old over the next four years. The party, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats, would abolish vouchers. Labour's aim is to use the extra funding to guarantee places for four-year-olds and then set national targets for gradually achieving universal provision for three-year-olds.

The Liberal Democrats promise to provide places for all three and four-year-olds immediately, as the first call on the Pounds 200 million a year Scottish education is set to receive from the party's extra 1p on tax.

The other common theme is a focus on the early primary years. Labour repeats its undertaking to cut class sizes in the early years of primary school, paid for by phasing out the assisted places scheme. The Liberal Democrats are more specific, promising no child between the ages of five and 12 will be in a class of more than 30 by 2000.

The SNP will reduce class sizes throughout the system by employing an extra 700 primary and secondary teachers at a cost of Pounds 80 million over four years. The Tories have no plans to cut class sizes.

There is a common cause in tackling underachievement among children starting school with the Government already leading the way by earmarking Pounds 9 million for early literacy and numeracy initiatives over the next three years.

Labour will encourage early intervention reading programmes, while the Liberal Democrats' drive will be for 90 per cent of all pupils to reach their expected reading age by 2005. Labour says a basic education for children starting primary school should include a familiarity with foreign languages and computing as well as the three Rs.

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