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Plenty of pledges in the bag for a new term

THERE is no doubt about what will form the first line of Labour's manifesto for the next election.

Tony Blair has already said that, as in 1997, it will be a promise to raise national spending on education.

He told the Labour conference in Brighton in September: "Education. Education.

Education. Then, now and in the future."

He used his speech to trail some of the proposals that will lie at the heart of the manifesto.

There were no surprises. The Government announced its spending plans up to 2004 in July and the extra money is already pledged to fund the initiatives which would form the mainstays of a Labour second term.

This increases spending on secondaries but ties the extra money to tough new targets which will require 14-year-olds to improve drastically performance by 200405.

These targets would easily lend themselves to election pledges, as would the promise to provide all three-year-olds with nursery places and to increase the number of computers in schools.

Over the next three years, the number of pupils sharing a single computer is to be almost halved, to five in secondary schools and eight in primaries, Mr Blair has promised.

What is not yet certain is whether 1997's class-size pledge for five to seven year-olds is to be extended to older primary pupils this time.

While ministers have studiously avoided making any promises of this kind, insiders believe that it is set to be included in the next manifeto.

Mr Blunkett last month announced the first funding to be specifically aimed at cutting junior class sizes. As a result of the year 2000 spending review, pound;73 million will be available next year to reduce class sizes for eight to 11-year-olds.

Plans to encourage 16-year-olds to stay in education are also being drawn up for the manifesto. Pilot schemes giving children of poor families up to pound;30 a week if they continue with their studies are likely to be extended nationally in Labour's second term. Education maintenance allowances have been piloted since September 1999. These have already resulted in grants being provided to more than 70,000 teenagers.

Students under 19 will receive half-price bus travel under separate plans for the manifesto which would cost pound;100m a year. The Government's social exclusion unit report last year identified travel costs as the major reason why 16 to 18-year-olds did not stay on at school.

Downing Street is considering separate proposals which would cut thousands of people's state benefits unless they attend classes to improve their reading, writing and arithmetic. Ministers regard the lack of basic skills in around seven million adults as the greatest threat to achieving full employment.

Mr Blunkett is due to launch a package of measures to improve basic skills, including pound;150m for books and courses. But ministers want powers to punish those who fail to attend classes by cutting their benefits.

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