As the Labour conference met in Blackpool, Helen Liddell announced a three-pronged initiative "to support children's learning", already trailed in the Government's comprehensive spending review in July. It includes:
* #163;23 million for "a radical programme of alternatives to exclusion" to reduce exclusions by a third by 2002, and provide full-time education for all pupils excluded for more than three weeks.
* #163;27 million on top of #163;23 million in lottery funds to spread study support activities such as homework clubs and summer schools across the country and not just in deprived areas.
* #163;15 million for schemes such as home-link teachers, family literacy schemes and parent support groups to engage parents in their children's learning.
The money will be paid out over the next three years from April, in the run-up to the general election. Commitments already made, from upgrading school buildings to teacher training, have run up a bill of #163;555 million out of #163;629 million earmarked for Scottish schools in the spending review.
Ronnie Smith, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, welcomed any attempt to redress years of underfunding. But Mr Smith warned:
"While there is a need to direct money to ensure that exclusion from school is not exclusion from education, we don't want the point reached where exclusion is not an option for schools."
He would also be concerned if the imposition of targets, such as reducing exclusions by a third, was put before the best interests of schools and pupils.
Judith Gillespie, development officer for the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says initiatives like alternatives to exclusion "must be long term and not just glamour money until the next general election".
Support for pupils will also have to include their parents, Mrs Gillespie said. "When pupils are excluded from school, parents also feel excluded. They become isolated and therefore defensive. But, like all these initiatives, this will take teacher time. Any extra put in for staffing now is only replacing staffing that has been reduced by the years of cuts."
Irene Audain, national development officer of the Scottish Out of School Care Network, called for priority to be given to quality services so children have space to play and to express themselves.
Speaking as more than 350 delegates from 18 countries gathered in Edinburgh to discuss "The future of the child", Ms Audain said: "This should be the starting point before continually looking at rigid educational pursuits such as homework clubs. Although there is a place for these activities, the child-centred emphasis is absent from many of the initiatives currently being announced. "
Janet Law, education chair in SNP-run Perth and Kinross, took up the political cudgels and urged Mrs Liddell to learn from her authority, which is targeting primary pupils transferring to secondary who are thought to be most at risk of being excluded. The pilot involves Perth Grammar and two associated primaries.
Scottish Office figures for 1996-97 showed that temporary exclusions amounted to eight half-days for every 100 primary pupils, rising significantly to 95 half-days for secondary schools. This is the equivalent of 96 primary and 729 secondary pupils being absent for the whole school session.
The number of pupils permanently excluded fell from 30 to 16 in primary and from 115 to 91 in secondary. But the Scottish Office believes inconsistent approaches by education authorities cloud the picture and wants improvements in collecting the data.
A report by the New Policy Institute earlier this year estimated exclusions had risen from 2910 in 1990-91 to just over 12,000 in 1995-96 across the UK, which cost the education, health and social services about #163;81 million.