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The stalls are out and the fight is on

Neil Munro and David Henderson go on the Holyrood campaign trail as the three main opposition parties unveiled their manifestos this week

Power to parents, mark II - CONSERVATIVES

NO HANKERING after turning the clock back - but abolition of education authorities and the return of nursery vouchers show the party intends to continue delivering Thatcherite principles by other means. Efforts to court the classroom vote can be seen in pledges to put more money into front-line teaching in primary schools and to tackle indiscipline.

Brian Monteith, the party's education spokesman, acknowledges that "opting out as a policy has failed" - not least, Mr Monteith admits equally candidly, because Tory ministers in the last Government turned down so many requests.

But the party's animus against council control continues with "exciting" plans to build on individual school boards by creating wider education boards. These could serve communities but might also be formed from other natural groupings such as specialist schools, special schools, single-sex schools and even Roman Catholic schools.

Education boards, led by managers, would be composed of representatives from individual school boards, headteachers and councillors.

This opting out by other means, or "real devolution to schools" as the manifesto calls it, would leave local authorities with no role in education, while still establishing what Mr Monteith sees as a necessary tier between the Scottish parliament and schools.

The new boards would be funded directly from the Scottish Office on the basis of their schools' results and their ability to attract pupils. The manifesto claims this would leave schools "with greater freedom to pursue different paths to excellence and to raise the status of teachers so that they are, once more, respected as skilled and dedicated professionals".

As a counter-weight, the Tories recognise there would have to be more centralist supervision. The Scottish Office education department would be strengthened, greater monitoring of standards through HMI would be necessary and the General Teaching Council would be beefed up. Teachers would have a pay review body, another centralist measure offsetting "real devolution".

The Tories' attempt at a rapprochement with teachers continues as they pledge to switch the Government's class size money - pound;48 million over three years - to hire specialist teachers in modern languages and science for primary schools.

The manifesto dares to adopt the slogan deployed for so long against the last Tory government that expenditure on limiting class sizes is "an English solution to an English problem".

The party promises a regime of "constructive discipline" in schools, including in-school special units and more detention. It would also use lottery money to fund a coaching scheme for parents and staff to boost sporting activities in schools.

The manifesto also confirms the Tories' flagship policy of abolishing tuition fees for Scots students, replacing them with a non means-tested voucher worth pound;1,000 a year which could be cashed at any UK university.

* The party's theme of more power to parents and less for local authorities is revisited under proposals to reinvent nursery vouchers. Instead of council-controlled funding of half-day places, as under the Government's scheme, parents would be given a voucher equivalent in value to the cost of a full-time place for four-year-olds. It would be paid for by using the money set aside by the Government for three-year-olds.

This could be used either for full-time education in the pre-school year or for half-time provision at ages three and four, as parents wish.

Pay's too hot to handle - LIB DEMS

THE PARTY has ditched a long-standing commitment to a pay review body for teachers and backed continuation of the Scottish Joint Negotiating Committee.

Raising the standard, the manifesto launched on Wednesday by Jim Wallace, the party's Scottish leader, now avoids any reference to an independent body, although the party continues to support one for higher and further education.

A version close to the manifesto printing date stated: "We would aim to deliver the pay award recommendations of the independent review body in full and without phasing. We will require a vote of the Scottish parliament to overturn such recommendations."

The manifesto drops the crucial section, leaving a large white space where the commitment would have been.

Mr Wallace, speaking in Edinburgh, said pay was "a matter for negotiations between local authorities and the teaching unions". The party is content to "ensure that pay rates and promotion prospects allow teaching to compete for the best people".

In contrast, in further and higher education, the party backs a UK pay body whose awards would be implemented in full without staging. Only a vote in the new parliament would be able to overturn its recommendations.

Mr Wallace joined the political chorus by emphasising the importance of education in the coming election and underlined his party's pledge to increase investment well beyond the levels of the current Labour administration.

Labour had cut pound;200 million from school budgets since 1997, he said. By working with others - and there are few fundamental divisions between the parties, Mr Wallace admitted - Liberal Democrats would in 2000-2001 inject pound;40 million into budgets and employ 2,000 more teachers. A further pound;60 million would go into a "books bonanza", pound;20 million into buildings and pound;50 million into higher education, bringing the total to pound;170 million extra in the first year of the parliament. Similar sums would be spent over the two further years, taking the total to pound;510 million by 2003.

Mr Wallace said calculations were based on a possible penny tax rise for education and health which the party has long said it would introduce "if necessary". But he believed the financial nest egg gathered by Chancellor Gordon Brown could obviate the need to levy the tax hike.

The party attacks Labour for successive cuts, constant attacks on teachers and a torrent of initiatives "which has left schools drowning in bureaucracy".

A key policy is a "schools 2010" capital investment programme to provide at least pound;100 million over the four years of the parliament to renovate substandard buildings.

A standing commission would "take stock" of Scottish education by consulting with all parties "not least teachers, building a coalition for agreed reform". It would help draw up a 10-year programme of coherent reforms and avoid "over-hasty and unwanted initiatives". It could set "ambitious targets" for literacy and numeracy.

Tuition fees for all Scottish students at UK universities would go along with the fourth-year fees of English, Welsh and Irish students at Scottish institutions.

* Among other major policy planks the Lib Dems want to:

* Employ more specialist music, drama and language teachers.

* Strengthen discipline in schools.

* Boost the teaching of Scottish history and culture in schools.

* Encourage diversity by allowing schools to develop specialisms.

* Guarantee Gaelic teaching where there is a demand.

* Relieve paperwork by increasing administrative staff and IT.

* Guarantee extracurricular activity for every secondary pupil.


EDUCATION WOULD benefit by pound;350 million if Scotland did not accept the Chancellor's penny off income tax, under a "Penny for Scotland" tax campaign. Spending would rise substantially and would end Labour cuts, party leaders stated at the launch of their campaign this week.

As previously trailed, key policy commitments include employing more teachers, spending an additional pound;30 for every pupil on books, abolishing student tuition fees and restoring partial grants for 20,000 students.

But the education section ducks references to new technology in schools where the party recently came under attack. Plans to scrap the National Grid for Learning and substantial investment in computers, one of Labour's pet schemes, now receive no mention. The SNP wanted to transfer the cash to other areas, including textbooks and library books.

The party's big idea, outside of increased spending, is its all-interest group education convention to exam policy at a pre-legislative stage. This would stop "the endless political meddling in education and the curriculum".

The SNP supports Labour's nursery education expansion and schemes to tackle literacy and numeracy in the early years but wants a review of the 5-14 curriculum to concentrate on the basics.

It is likely to come under fire, however, over plans to cut class sizes from primary 1 through to secondary 1 from 33 to 30 over six years - Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, says Labour's existing timetable is better. The extra edge from the SNP is a commitment to cut sizes to 25 in an independent Scotland.

Despite a pledge to make sure teachers are free to get on with the job, the party is "determined" to raise standards, although it believes this should be achieved by working with schools, councils and school boards. Targets should be set by collaboration and not imposed. Inspection teams should include seconded teachers.

One of the more ambitious aims is to reduce paperwork by a third within the lifetime of the first parliament. "We will provide more auxiliaryadministration staff to ensure teachers are freed to teach pupils," the manifesto states.

The guidance system would be overhauled to create designated "teachers of trust" to offer a confidential counselling service to pupils with difficulties.

Rural schools should be protected against budget cuts by ensuring the final say on closures lies with the relevant minister.

Along with other parties, homework clubs and similar initiatives gain maximum support.

No SNP policy, of course, is complete without references to Gaelic and Scots languages which should have "an enhanced place in the curriculum".

In FE, new money would tackle the "funding crisis", backed by a complete review of the sector. The Government's "little used and little known" scheme for individual learning accounts would be scrapped.

One of the party's most distinctive policy areas is higher education. It maintains university spending for 1998-99, including income from fees, rose by a mere pound;4 million over the previous year, a 5 per cent cut in real terms. Instead, it promises new money for higher education and will abide by the decisions of a National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education.

* The party reaffirms its commitment to Roman Catholic schools "for as long as the Catholic community wishes them". The law will not change, it promises. The statement is likely to guarantee Alex Salmond, the party's leader, a warm reception later this month when he addresses Catholic secondary heads in Crieff.

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