Policies without price-tags

Paul McGill follows politicians in Ulster. Northern Ireland's political parties are contesting 18 seats in the general election in the sure knowledge that they will never be in government.

With the governance of the troubled province firmly in the hands of Whitehall, and little sign of a lasting settlement which would put power back into the hands of its politicians, there is little need for hard decisions. The hardest decision of all is how to find the money everybody agrees must be invested in education. Policies being placed before the voters have no price-tags - and few voters will ask for them.

All the parties are against the latest severe education cuts and determined to show they have opposed them more vigorously than their competitors. All support the expansion of nursery education and higher status for vocational education.

Clear blue water exists only on the 11-plus and the policy of diverting 5 per cent of the education budget to deprived schools, known as targeting social need (TSN).

Roy Beggs MP, education spokesperson for the Ulster Unionists, the fourth largest party at Westminster, told the Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) conference last week that they opposed TSN.

"It has had disastrous effects, even in the one town where one school appoints four extra teachers and another makes four redundant. Every pupil should be worth the same amount of financial support."

Tommy Gallagher, Social Democratic and Labour party candidate in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, criticised TSN from the opposite perspective. He told the conference that the policy was inadequate and that schools with difficulties needed guaranteed help on a long-term basis.

With Sinn Fein also supporting TSN, it will not be an issue within the Nationalist community. Nor will it cause dissent between the main Unionist parties because the Democratic Unionist party, which has three MPs, has taken a similar line to the UUP.

"Roy Beggs is quite correct," its representative, Oliver Gibson, said. He explained that it was too late to try to cure problems at secondary stage which had not been tackled at pre-school level.

"We can't do a great deal about people who did not go through nursery education. We have thrown a lot of money at TSN and remedial education but it has not achieved much," he said.

Selection at 11 splits parties, with the SDLP and Sinn Fein favouring abolition. "It is socially divisive," Mr Gallagher told the UTU.

"The number of middle-class pupils in grammar schools is twice the proportion of working-class children."

By contrast, the Unionist parties at Westminster, including the United Kingdom Unionist Party, believe selection must remain so long as parents support it.

Eileen Bell, chair of the Alliance party, said they believed selection should be reviewed, perhaps delaying it until a later age. She was the only one to comment on where to find resources for education, backing the Liberal Democrat proposal for a 1p rise in income tax.

Alliance was also the most enthusiastic supporter of integrated education. Others supported it in principle, but sometimes with little enthusiasm. Mr Beggs said he opposed giving scarce resources to build a third sector when there were surplus places in existing schools.

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