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Schooling sidelined as parties seek local seats

THE Liberal Democrats look to set for gains in next week's local elections.

But as 238 of the 308 councils involved have no responsibility for schools, education has been a side issue on the doorstep.

Howard Sykes, chief executive of the Association of Liberal Democrat councillors, said: "The state of schools is an election issue, as it always is, but people talk about their schools rather than education.

"It is not like the early 1990s when local elections were a referendum on the Government. It is good that we are having a set of local elections which are fought on local issues."

Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council and a member of the Conservative Councillors Association, has a different view. "Our candidates are being questioned about education and about the rise in council tax.

People are worried that education in Hampshire will be jeopardised," he said.

Dave Wilcox, a Labour councillor, is Local Government Association education finance chairman, and standing for re-election to High Peaks Borough Council. "I've telephoned, canvassed and knocked on at least 1,000 doors and education funding has not been raised once," he said.

Pundits predict that Labour will lose seats, the Conservatives will make a few gains, with the Liberal Democrats picking up votes.

For Tony Blair the elections will be seen as a popularity test, following the Iraq war which angered many Labour supporters. Iain Duncan Smith, meanwhile, may face a contest for the leadership of his party if the Tories have a poor showing.

There will be elections in 76 local education authorities. There are 27 unitary authorities where the whole council is up for election and 49 unitary or metropolitan district councils where a third of the seats are being contested. None of the county councils or London boroughs are holding elections.

Labour's campaign slogan is "More teachers, more nurses and more police."

It says the Labour government has delivered the highest ever primary test results, nursery places for all four-year-olds and half of secondary pupils achieve at least five good GCSEs.

The Tories say that in the councils it controls children are less likely to play truant, schools are least likely to be placed in special measures and most likely to achieve the highest GCSE pass rates.

The Lib Dems want to scrap school league tables and replace them with a broader annual progress report. They also want to give local authorities enough funding to cut primary class sizes to 25 and reduce secondary class sizes.

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