THE SNP has been accused of putting the financial needs of a minority of better-off students ahead of the need for all school pupils to be computer literate.
Both Liberal Democrats and Labour urged the SNP to rethink its scheme, outlined last week in the party's education manifesto, to use the pound;62 million earmarked for the National Grid for Learning to subsidise university students. The SNP has calculated that it would cost pound;38 million to scrap tuition fees for Scottish students.
Jim Wallace, the Lib Dem leader in Scotland, told the Scottish Grand Committee in Edinburgh on Monday that the move would be "absolute folly", while Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, accused the SNP of doing a "reverse Robin Hood".
Mr Wallace said: "For years, before the upgrading of the A74 started, all parties pointed out how Scotland's economic performance was impaired because the motorway network ended just short of the border. How can the SNP believe that Scotland's future welfare and prosperity will be best served if the digital superhighway runs out at Carlisle?" Mrs Liddell said the SNP ignored the fact that 40 per cent of the poorest students paid no tuition fees. Only families on an income of more than pound;35,000 a year would benefit from a scheme that would take away money from disadvantaged children in primary schools.
The SNP also proposes ending individual learning accounts, saving pound;7.3 million a year. The accounts are intended to boost adult and community education. Funds to train teachers in new technology would be switched to other priorities.
Nicola Sturgeon, the party's education spokeswoman, launched the policy paper with a claim that "thousands of pupils are short of books and materials". One unnamed school in the Lothians was unable to supply paper, Ms Sturgeon claimed.
The SNP is pledged to spend an extra pound;20 a pupil on textbooks and pound;10 on library books. The maximum class size would be reduced from 33 to 30 within six years. Further ahead, the maximum should come down to 25. The policy document states: "While the pound;65.5 million required to do this is not available under the financial constraints of devolution, independence would make this educational advance possible."
The 5-14 curriculum is overcrowded, and more time should be spent on reading, writing and numeracy, the SNP says. Teachers should be left to achieve a balanced curriculum, and inspectors should not be used as "educational policemen" by the Government. Every Inspectorate team should include a teacher on secondment. An education convention would bring together all groups with an interest in schools.
Ms Sturgeon said students from the rest of the United Kingdom should no longer have to pay fourth-year fees. As a step towards restoring maintenance grants, the poorest 20,000 students would receive pound;500. Full grants could only come with the "fiscal freedom of independence".
To help pay for these commitments, pound;20 million a year would be saved on the National Grid for Learning, which Ms Sturgeon said was "an idea whose time has not yet come". New technology training should be paid for from the Government's pound;50 million budget for teacher training.
The policy paper makes no commitments to community or adult education. But the Government's promise of individual learning accounts to finance continuing education is described as a "bureaucratic mess". Ms Sturgeon told The TES Scotland that adult education needed a thoroughgoing review.
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