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Rifkind's clean slate

After appearing together on Question Time, Helen Liddell remarked that Sir Michael Forsyth looked 10 years younger. Removal from the strains of office seems to have benefited Conservative education thinking, too, even if (or because?) it has not had input from the former Secretary of State.

The education section of the Rifkind commission document is untrammelled by ideology of the kind which marked 18 years of legislation and regulation. True, there are nods in the direction of self-management, firm discipline, standards and streaming, but these would pass unnoticed from the lips of Education Secretary David Blunkett and probably from Mrs Liddell's. References to a rich extracurricular life for pupils, plus moral philosophy in the fifth and sixth "forms", suggest policy input from the independent sector, but "schools which are privileged to own extensive facilities should be encouraged to help others who do not".

Most noticeable are the Conservatives' new spending commitments. Music they would be to the ears of union leaders if only the party had a grip on the purse-strings. From higher salaries for teachers and lecturers to the restoration of student maintenance grants, freedom from Treasury monitoring has allowed the Tories to become the teachers' and consumers' friend.

The party appears tacitly to have accepted that it misjudged what Scots want from the education system. Opposition is a time for the clean slate but so deep was the resentment of teachers and parents after 18 years of mistakes that a single policy document is not going to restore electoral fortunes.

Tory leaders accept that. Their education manifesto for next May can reflect the generous thinking of the Rifkind commission for its spending commitments will not have to be met by a Conservative finance minister. In the longer term, Labour mistakes are likely to form the surest route to restoration of Tory strength. But there is an alternative opposition in the SNP, which is at least as assiduous in wooing teachers and parents with promises of more money and better times.

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