The future of Scotland weighs heavily on the minds of the politicians who revealed in their party manifestos this week that provision for the youngest children is crucial as they set the scene for action
A new education act would give local authorities control of their overall education budget, including the education maintenance allowance.
Headteachers would gain more control over the curriculum and school budgets and would be able to bid directly to the Scottish Executive to fund specific projects.
In return they would be required to have a programme of continuing professional development for teachers, engagement in which could become a requirement of continued registration as a teacher.
Other aspects of Conservative policy include doing away with limits on school places in popular schools; reinstatement of school boards; and allowing parents of special needs children free choice of special or mainstream schooling.
The party also proposes a pilot scheme for a city academy in Glasgow which, if successful, would pave the way for specialist vocational schools in drama, arts, science and other subject areas. In higher education, the Conservatives want a "root and branch" review of university funding, fees and student finance. Students would be allowed to borrow as much as they need to complete their courses, and the payback salary threshold would be raised.
Entitlement to free nursery education would be extended from 33 to 38 weeks and to 15 hours per week.
Formal learning would be delayed until children are six, converting P1 into a transition year, and the emphasis in early education would be on learning through play. Schools would offer wrap-around childcare between 8am and 6pm.
An additional 1,000 teachers would be recruited to cut class sizes in P1-3 to a maximum of 25 to enable more personalised teaching, and 250 new schools built.
Primary children would be given an hour of physical activity a day with an extra 1,000 sports coaches and PE teachers recruited.
Headteachers would be given more freedom to pursue a school specialism, with the additional power to compel parents to meet with them or the local authority if they failed to engage over their child's problems. Superheads would move schools every five to seven years to help transform failing schools, with access of up to pound;100,000 to make improvement through a new schools transformation fund.
Other policies include expansion of enterprise and financial education and practical science lessons in primary. A second language in primary would also be introduced.
A "Future of Scotland" bill would give young people new rights, starting with a pupil council in every school. Children in care could receive extended support up to the age of 25.
The Nationalists say early years education is key to improving attainment in later years. The party promises to cut class sizes to 18 in P1-3, and to increase free nursery education by 50 per cent for three and four-year-olds. It would give access to a fully qualified nursery teacher for every child - starting in deprived areas - and develop nurture groups further. The party also proposes the creation of a flexible, dedicated early years teaching degree.
Children would receive free fruit in schools, health and fitness checks and free school meals from P1-3.
Languages, science, technology, enterprise and Scottish history, culture and heritage would form the heart of a Nationalist "curriculum for excellence". Scottish science and language baccalaureates would be created initially as a group award recog-nising high attainment in Highers and Advanced Highers. This could even-tually lead to the introduction of the International Baccalaureate.
Headteachers would have the power to decide class sizes in later years, and schools given power to set policy on issues such as mobile phone abuse, uniform, and exclusion.
Public Private Partner-ship school building schemes would be replaced by the Scottish Futures Trust using bonds for finance. The graduate endowment payment would be abolished and student loans replaced with grants.
Those paying student loans will have their repayments met by a Nationalist executive.
Education is promised the injection of any extra funding, while other departments are warned they may have to "cut their cloth" according to the money available. A total investment of pound;1.2 billion for schools, colleges, universities and training programmes is promised by 2010-11 - Pounds 360 million for 2008-09; pound;380 million for 2009-10; and pound;400 million for 2010-11.
Under a new education bill, 16 and 17-year-olds could only leave education if in skills training or full-time volunteering, while 100 skills academies would give 14 to 18 year-olds high level vocational skills.
Labour also promises an extension of free nursery education provision to the 10,000 two-year-olds "who need it the most" and an increase in hours for three and four-year-olds. New literacy and arithmetic standard tests would be introduced in secondary.
Headteachers would be given budgets to help them mainstream children with special needs.
Languages would be taught from P3, and 500 additional modern languages teachers and language assistants recruited.
Two hundred and fifty schools would be rebuilt or refurbished with at least 100 completed by 2009, and the Schools of Ambition programme would be expanded.
Labour is aiming for two hours of PE a week for primary children and says lowering class sizes will remain a priority.
HMIE's remit would be expanded and the General Teaching Council for Scotland given new powers in setting, monitoring and maintaining teaching standards.
A discipline code would be laid out in legislation, giving headteachers authority to exclude unruly pupils.
Top-up fees would not be introduced and the amount that could be borrowed through the student loans scheme increased.
The Scottish Green Party would integrate denominational schools into a non-denominational system of state education. It also wants to see a maximum primary class size of 20; more work experience opportunities for pupils; a ban on advertising in schools; and better pay and conditions for support staff.
The Scottish Socialist Party wants maximum class sizes of 20; no school closures without the agreement of the local community; free pre-school education for three and four-year-olds; better staffing and care for special needs pupils in mainstream and specialist provision; free school meals for all; an end to all PPP building schemes; reinstatement of the student grant; and the abolition of tuition fees.
THE FOUR FORCES
Even sitting still, the ever-energetic Fiona Hyslop seems to be on the move. As mother of three children aged from nursery to P7, the Lothians list MSP and SNP education spokeswoman has plenty to keep her busy.
One of the most vocal voices on the Scottish Parliament's education committee, the 42-year-old nonetheless strikes a more measured tone than some of her parliamentary colleagues.
A former pupil of Ayr Academy and economic history and sociology graduate of Glasgow University, she spent 13 years working in sales and marketing for Standard Life. But politics has been a long-running interest. Ms Hyslop joined the SNP in 1986 and has worked her way into the bosom of the party, appointed to the education brief by former party leader John Swinney in 2003, remaining there ever since.
Scotland's education system lends itself well, she claims, to the independence cause she espouses. "We have an independent Scottish education system. What we want to do is provide the leadership in education that takes the best from the profession and drive that forward."
As first on the Conservatives' regional list for Mid-Scotland and Fife, Murdo Fraser, the party's 41-year-old deputy leader, can be confident he will be bringing his files back next month.
Mr Fraser, who is also standing in the North Tayside constituency, is an IRA man - Inverness Royal Academy - who graduated from Aberdeen University.
He had a career in commercial law before his election. He can look to his wife (a former accountant who converted to teaching) for an insight into education as his party's education spokesman, a role he took on in addition to his lifelong learning and enterprise remit, following Lord James Douglas-Hamilton's retirement.
Deputy leader for less than 18 months, he is a Christian who is regarded as having matured into his political role and was voted the "unexpected star turn" in a recent media hustings.
A graduate of the Tories' right wing school, Mr Fraser has become proficient in the pragmatic arts. He is at ease with the party's mantra of "passing power down the line to schools", but accepts that its former policy of taking schools out of council control had to give way to the reality that "there didn't seem to be a huge public demand to have schools which were self-governing".
Schooldays at the Gordon Schools in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, were brought back to Robert Brown when he visited his alma mater, this time as Deputy Education Minister.
The amiable 60-year-old, who was born a Geordie and is likely to be back again as a Liberal Democrat list MSP for Glasgow, remembers fondly: "It was described as one of the most beautiful schools in Scotland because of the row of lime trees as you approach."
Although clearly an academic student who went on to pursue a legal career (in the same firm as Murdo Fraser, with whom he also shares the experience of having a teacher wife), his recollections are of playing basketball and winning a prize for singing.
Despite his English roots, Mr Brown is a fan of the Scottish lad o' pairts tradition in which background was supposed to be no impediment to educational progress. He believes this chimes with the tone of his party's education policy, which centres on the welfare of the child.
As a minister, Mr Brown does not have to vacate his parliamentary office, and he hopes he is allowed to continue in the education job after May 3.
The 55-year-old who represents Paisley South is the only directly-elected MSP among the four main education spokespersons. Vastly experienced as a local and national politician, the Education Minister is said to have guided more legislation through parliament than any other in his various roles as deputy minister in the healthcommunity care, social justice and justice departments.
Having taken over the education brief last November, Mr Henry is an unknown quantity in this area. But has shown himself to have an unusual combi-nation of an enquiring mind which can be very firm when it is made up.
He says it is necessary to guard against the assumption that a policy is implemented simply because it is a policy, and the reviews he has ordered of the chartered teacher programme and Sure Start early years initiative demonstrate this.
Mr Henry has ample personal insight into teaching: his wife is a lecturer at Strathclyde University, and his daughter is a probationer teacher.
Ministerial colleagues regard him as a safe pair of hands. This could be a winning combination - but he has to win his seat where he has a 2,453 majority, and Labour has to win, if he has any hope of holding on to his brief.