Blinded by the figures

25th May 2001 at 01:00
AS was inevitable, the parties campaigning in the General Election have not drawn a cordon sanitaire round areas devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It is true they set out their stalls in the context of Westminster decisions on public expenditure for services such as education and health: not enough, according to the SNP and Liberal Democrats; not enough properly applied but from less tax, according to the Conservatives; and projected increases to make up for the two years of stocktaking from 1997, according to Labour.

How resources raised at Westminster would be spent in Scotland has led to a rerun of the 1999 elections and a foretaste of those that will take place in 2003 - down to the detail of the SNP's free fruit for primary schools. Since the future of public services is recognised as the key to the election outcome, the parties cannot be blamed for crossing functional boundaries that are blured in the mind of most voters.

But the result none the less is confusing. When Labour promises more teachers, are they in addition to those already scheduled under the McCrone agreement, or has the Chancellor of the Exchequer found money for another 1,000, as the manifesto implies (without saying how colleges of education are to recruit students for the shortage subjects)? Rehearsing initiatives already announced has become a Labour leitmotif. That becomes even more puzzling when one does not know whether the UK or Scottish party is speaking.

A wider debate would be more instructive. The nature of the school curriculum, professional autonomy, pupil rights and responsibilities, education for citizenship andor enterprise - these are among issues worth arguing about because they straddle national borders and would show whether the parties can do more than pull figures out of thin air.

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