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Teachers' votes are really going to count

Next month's election looks increasingly likely to be another nail- biting finish, with the SNP catching up on Labour and narrowing the gap in the latest polls, so the two parties could be neck and neck once again.

With 52,000 teachers out there with votes to cast, their views are going to count. With pay talks unresolved, unions balloting their members on whether to accept the current offer and Gerry McCormac's review of the McCrone agreement due out in June, whichever party comes to power will have major issues to deal with - and these will have an impact on every school and every teacher in the country.

So, which way to vote? That's the question in many teachers' minds. They may be unhappy with the way the SNP Government - along with Cosla and the unions - has handled the pay talks, or its failure to fulfil pledges on teacher numbers and class sizes, and they may feel the sins of the bankers are being visited upon the local authority employees, but would any other party do better?

We have set up our own election panel of teachers to ask them what they think and to see what the key issues are for them - a supply teacher from Aberdeenshire, a primary teacher from East Ayrshire, a modern studies teacher from Edinburgh, a physics teacher from West Dunbartonshire and an art and design teacher from Falkirk (page 7). All are concerned about what the parties are going to do with education; some are going to vote on that alone, while others plan to take a broader view.

One difficulty, they say, is that "the main parties don't sound very different", and there are many who share that opinion. So, over the next weeks, we will interview each of the party spokespeople on education about their manifesto pledges - and crucial issues that are not mentioned in them - and see if they can swing the views of our panellists and our wider readership.

This week, we start with Liz Smith, education spokeswoman for the Conservatives. Reading her responses (page 6), no one could say the views she expresses sound like the other parties. Graduate contributions; apprenticeships for 14-year-olds; "second-chance centres" for excluded pupils; parents, philanthropists, charities and not-for-profit trusts to set up schools; state schools permitted to operate independently of local authorities and more power for headteachers: some have been discussed in Scotland, but others are more redolent of English policies. What may be less in evidence here than in some of the other manifestos are major U- turns. The Tories stand out on their own. They have little to lose in Scotland and will be happy to barter again with any minority government that may emerge, wielding what influence they can.

In a few weeks' time, we'll see what our panel has to say and which spokespeople have impressed them. The following week, we'll discover if they have also impressed the wider electorate.

Gillian Macdonald, Editor.

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