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Parties put on a new gloss

NO "big ideas" have emerged from the election manifestos of the four main parties - although party leaders attempted to present some well-trailed policies as such.

Labour's commitments, launched in its manifesto on Monday, are virtually a rewrite of the Scottish Executive's response to the national debate on education as well as the proposals that emerged from last September's spending review.

"School standards are not as high as they could be," Jack McConnell, Labour's leader, said this week. Other familiar mantras made an appearance - comprehensive schooling did not imply a "one size fits all" philosophy, "every school to be an excellent school", "excellence is not dependent on postcode", and so on.

Specific undertakings in the manifesto are already under way or in the pipeline - tackling underperforming schools, all schools to be new community schools by 2007, devolving 90 per cent of school budget control to heads, reforming the curriculum and streamlining assessment, improving literacy and numeracy, extending educational maintenance for 16-19s, reducing class sizes in S1-S2, renewing 300 school buildings by 2009, introducing specialist teachers in the upper primary and reforming special needs provision.

The Liberal Democrats, Labour's coalition partner in the Executive, unveiled what is probably the only genuinely "big idea" - postponing the start of primary to the age of six. But that, too, has already been widely promoted.

According to Nicol Stephen, the party's education spokesman, this extra time would provide "a full-time, teacher-led year which will be less formal and more focused on the needs of the individual child".

The Liberal Democrats are also committed to "slash red tape" in schools, by scrapping national 5-14 tests, although this looks like the Executive's existing plan to streamline assessment and combine 5-14 tests with the sampling of performance under the Assessment of Achievement Programme.

Jim Wallace, the Liberal Democrat leader, has given a pledge to abandon national exam league tables, however, which Labour has not done.

The SNP also took the opportunity of its manifesto appearance today (Friday) to relaunch some policies, chiefly its intention to reduce P1-P3 classes to 18.

But, in a visit to a community nursery in a deprived area of Aberdeen earlier this week, John Swinney, the party's leader, said that it had a fully costed programme worth pound;145 million to recruit another 3,115 primary teachers.

Reductions would be targeted on the most deprived communities in the first three years and would be rolled out across the country within five years.

There is a commitment to pay for the teachers' agreement in full and support for temporary exclusion of difficult pupils to centres "where behavioural change is integral to the learning process".

Michael Russell, the SNP's education spokesman, said its mantra would be to provide "a unified but locally diverse service".

The Tories, who have frequently accused other parties of stealing their performance-driven and standards agenda, are abiding by their favoured watchwords of "standards and choice".

The party is backing more powers for heads to exclude disruptive pupils, greater choice of specialist schools, more freedom for schools to set their own priorities, abolition of the graduate tax and access to higher education solely on merit.

David McLetchie, the Tory leader, took issue with the Liberal Democrat claim to have helped abolish tuition fees. He said that the effect of beginning to pay deferred fees of pound;2,000 once graduates had started earning pound;10,000 would mean they would have to stump up an extra 9 per cent on every pound after that.

On top of 22 per cent base rate tax and 11 per cent in national insurance, this is an effective tax rate of 42 per cent - "more than the richest man in Scotland pays on his income", Mr McLetchie said.

Leader, page 24

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