THE POLITICAL parties have spent the past week striving for pole position on schools and students. It is easy to see why. Not only will education be the largest spending function of the new parliament, but it also rates, with health, at the top of voters' priorities.
So the Liberal Democrats promise 2,000 more teachers and threaten to make school spending a sticking point in any coalition talks . The SNP is so determined to appear fiscally responsible in abolishing student tuition fees that it made injudicious comments on "wired-up" schools. As for the Conservatives, their apparent conversion to state intervention must be making the last Secretary of State wonder at the party he left to its own devices.
The Government seeks to profit from its strategy since May 1997. For two years it effectively reduced education spending. For the next three years there will be injections of cash. Already most councils are reporting (pages four and five) increased budgets for 1999-2000. But much of the extra merely makes up for earlier cuts.
It is clear Labour has lost support among the many teachers who voted for it in 1997. Whether trumpeting the benefits now flowing from the comprehensive spending review brings a recovery no one knows. Certainly, the SNP and Liberal Democrats see opportunity in a soft area of Labour support.
Over the next two months the parties' pledges should be closely scrutinised. The SNP is chary about using the parliament's tax-raising powers. Some of its voter-friendly ideas would depend on the supposed fruits of independence. The Liberal Democrats remain wedded to an extra 1p tax for education, but their opponents say that the penny will have to be spent several times to pay for the promises. The Conservatives are mainly interested in finding a future role, knowing they will be only bit players in the first parliament.
As for Labour, the likely lead party after May 6, voter confusion is a danger. It relaunches its spending initiatives too frequently. And it mixes its messages. Does it believe school standards are good or bad? Do teachers need their morale massaged or their complacency shaken? The recent White Paper was typical in its failure to offer a clear and simple vision.