If elected, the Liberal Democrats will double spending on school books and equipment within a year, and, within the first five years, cut class sizes for the whole primary age range, pour Pounds 500 million into the repair of school buildings, as well as providing nursery places for all three-year-olds (and four-year-olds) in the country. To fund this Pounds 2 billion annual programme, according to the party's education spokesman, Don Foster, the taxpayer would only have to sacrifice 45 pence a week, or "the price of a packet of peanuts in the local pub".
The education commitments in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, published today, firmly position the party as the most sympathetic to the teaching profession, the party that has taken on board teachers' complaints about underfunding and eroded status. But whether teachers will decide that Don Foster's packet of peanuts amounts to more than a hill of beans, given Labour's apparently unassailable lead in the polls, looks more doubtful.
Critics will object that the Liberal Democrats are still intending to pour money into education by raising 1p on income tax, despite the fact that 1p has been cut off income tax since they first proposed doing it - should it not be 2p? The inclusion of hard spending commitments provides the most obvious contrast with Labour.
While there are no dramatic differences between Labour and Liberal Democrat thinking on education, Don Foster's key policies go faster and further. Like Labour, the Lib Dems prioritise the early years and promise to abolish the nursery voucher scheme but, on the French model, they offer a nursery place to all three-year-olds as well as four-year-olds. Like Labour, they will cut primary class sizes to under 30, but for all primary pupils, not just five, six and seven-year-olds. The repairs backlog will be tackled with an investment of Pounds 500 million over the first five years. A typical primary school with 250 pupils would get an extra Pounds 16,000 next year, says Mr Foster, and a typical secondary would be Pounds 110,000 richer.
The Labour manifesto bristles with promises to "attack" poor standards, to which it will show "zero tolerance", while the Liberal Democrat emphasis is more on self-policing. A new General Teaching Council would absorb the Teacher Training Agency, which would become its executive arm. The GTC would set standards and advise the Government on recruitment. But the funding and accreditation of initial teacher training would remain in the hands of the TTA or its equivalent. Wholly school-based initial teacher training (SCITT courses) would be scrapped.
While the Lib Dems "have no objection in principle" to a national curriculum for teacher training, the core curriculum introduced by the TTA recently "is on the borderline of encroaching on academic freedom", says Don Foster. The manifesto promises to "secure academic freedom" by appointing independent university "visitors" to whom threatened academics could appeal. Like Labour, they would re-introduce the probationary teacher year.
Inspections by the Office for Standards in Education would be less frequent, with more follow-up support and advice. The bidding system would go and all inspection teams would be led by HMIs. Schools and local authorities would combine to produce annual evaluations and checks on each school.
Asked whether the chief inspector Chris Woodhead would be as safe under a Lib Dem government as he would be under Labour, Don Foster suggested that "since the role of all quangos would change, it would also be sensible for their heads to be reviewed".
The national curriculum would be slimmed down to a "Minimum Curriculum Entitlement" taking up only 50 per cent of teaching time in order to restore professional flexibility. On discipline "we will oblige LEAs to fulfil their responsibilities to educate pupils excluded or suspended from school" and a national Truancy Watch scheme would be launched. On literacy, the Lib Dem target is similar to Labour's - 90 per cent of 11-year-olds to reach their expected reading age by 2005.
On structure, "we would devolve as many powers as possible to schools", but grant-maintained schools and technology colleges would be brought into a new frameork of "light touch" LEA supervision, and the Funding Agency for Schools would be disbanded. Selection is opposed, but "decisions on this should be made by local communities through their local councils and not by politicians at Westminster".
The Assisted Places Scheme would be phased out and the money saved used to enable LEAs to enter into "local partnership schemes" with private schools, which "could include assisting the funding of pupils at independent schools".
Access to further education would be widened. Everyone would have an individual learning account with contributions made by the state, individuals and employers. The state contribution would cover course fees as a minimum. All post-14 courses, including A-levels and degree courses, would be gathered under an umbrella credit-based system, while all big companies would be penalised by a 2 per cent levy on profits if they do not provide accredited training. A new Quality Council would police standards for post-16 courses. The Student Loans Scheme would be replaced by a longer-term repayment scheme linked to salaries.
* Early-years education for all three and four-year-olds.
* Voucher scheme scrapped.
* Spending on books and equipment doubled in first year.
* All primary class sizes under 30.
* Pounds 500m to restore school premises over five years.
* General Teaching Council to guard profession against poor teachers.
* Inspection system to include follow-up advice and annual self-evaluation by schools. Chris Woodhead's position to be reviewed.
* 90 per cent of pupils to reach their expected reading age by 2005.
* GM schools and technology colleges brought into framework of "light touch" LEAs.
Making the best start
* Give children the best start by providing high quality early-years education for every three and four-year-old child whose parents want it. This will be the first call on our Pounds 2 billion annual programme of extra investment in education.
Raising standards in schools
* Set up a General Teaching Council, charged with improving teaching standards and making teaching a profession to be proud of again. Provide more opportunities for professional development and reward excellence in teaching. Help poor teachers improve, but if they cannot, we will ensure they do not continue to teach.
* Strengthen the inspection system so that it helps schools. Extend inspection to monitoring local education authorities.
* Require schools to publish meaningful information on their standards, achievements and plans for the future.
* Replace the national curriculum with a more focused and flexible Minimum Curriculum Entitlement.
* Establish special literacy programmes involving parents with teachers in a drive to ensure that 90 per cent of all pupils reach their expected reading age by 2005.
investing in schools
* Extra investment for well-equipped classrooms and better-maintained buildings is essential if standards are to improve.
* Increase funding for books and equipment in schools. In the first year, we will double spending on books and equipment to overcome the effect of recent cuts.
* Reduce primary class sizes so that within five years no child between five and 11 will need to be in a class of more than 30.
* Tackle backlog of repairs. We will invest an additional Pounds 500 million over five years in repairing crumbling and unsafe buildings.
A new partnership for schools
* Give all schools more independence and allow them to develop their own styles and strengths. Devolve as many powers as possible to schools and give them more control over their budgets. Make new "light touch" LEAs responsible for those functions that cannot be undertaken by individual schools on their own. Bring grant-maintained schools and technology colleges into this new framework and scrap the Funding Agency for Schools.