Their pledges in detail

Scottish Nationalist Party

The SNP has four Westminster seats. It is targeting Tory and Lib-Dem constituencies and hopes to hold its by-election gain, Perth and Kinross.

The SNP opposes opting out and is pledged to "defending the comprehensive nature of the Scottish education system". The party has not been timid in making spending commitments - the manifesto bristles with figures and the party promises to invest a total of Pounds 745 million over four years.

It promises free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds (cost: Pounds 185 million over four years) and more money for local authorities so that they could employ 700 more teachers. School buildings would be repaired with another Pounds 200 million over four years.

The SNP would restore grants and benefits to students (Pounds 70 million a year), and unemployed 16 and 17-year-olds would be able to claim benefit again. University research would be boosted with Pounds 200 million over four years and another, separate, fund would protect "pure" academic research.

Because Scotland would be so much better off after independence, the SNP claims, the bill should not present a problem. North Sea fuel revenues, defence savings, "Scotland's budget surplus viz a viz the UK" and savings from national debt reduction would all finance education. Education spokeswoman Janet Law said: "Only an independent parliament can bring Scottish resources to bear on the underfunding problems in Scottish education."

The main parties have accused the SNP of writing a fantasy budget.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru holds four seats, one of them gained in the 1992 election - Ceredigion and Pembroke North. Support is concentrated in the Welsh-speaking areas, but leader Dafydd Wigley insists that his party is "poised to become the main opposition to Labour".

The party would establish a "distinctive" system for Wales, with a curriculum that fosters a sense of cultural identity and social responsibility. It opposes opting out.

Nursery vouchers would be scrapped and nursery education for all three, four and five-year-olds phased in, building on existing public and voluntary provision. The manifesto promises to restore public respect for teachers, with more money to help deal with difficult pupils and enhanced status for teachers who specialise in behavioural difficulties. The inspection regime should "encourage rather than alarm teachers".

The Liberal Party

These are the Liberal diehards who refused to join with the SDP to become the Liberal Democrats in the 80s. The party is putting up a minimum of 50 candidates and has high hopes of the Liverpool West Derby constituency, according to a spokesman.

On education, the manifesto emphasises sharing resources between schools and letting the local community decide what sort of schools they want and what should be taught, but the party would not let any more schools opt out. The national curriculum is "a dangerous concentration of power in the hands of the Secretary of State" and would be scrapped.

The party would establish elected pupil councils in secondary schools, giving pupils more say in choice of subjects as well as on matters such as uniform, meals, starting and finishing times and bullying. Private schools would have their right to claim charitable status removed, unless they cater for special needs.

Student loans would be replaced by a tax-credit system giving students a "living wage". Universities and FE colleges would be brought together under a higher education council.

UK Independence Party

Formed in 1993 and now claiming 16,000 members. The party wants to withdraw from the European Union, which, it claims, would free up Pounds 19 billion to spend on health, defence, tax cuts and a return to traditional-style education. It is fielding at least 200 candidates.

Education policy predictably emphasises imparting a sense of the national cultural identity of the UK, together with "integrity, responsibility and plain good manners". British history and literature would predominate, and the party is deeply suspicious of child-centred techniques which it blames for low standards. The UKIP deplores the decline of school sport.

There is also a strong deregulatory strain in the manifesto - the national curriculum would become less prescriptive, headteachers would become more autonomous and selection encouraged. The party would take a "hard look" at "doubtful courses" such as general national vocational qualifications, and EU students would be forced to pay fees.

Natural Law Party

Based on the teachings of the Mahareshi Yogi, the Natural Party is contesting all 659 seats, which suggests that the party has some affluent sympathisers.

Education spokesman Harriet Jump promises that the Natural Law party will give everybody a chance to "fulfil all aspirations in a natural, effortless and blissful way". All schools, colleges and universities will have to introduce transcendental meditation, which, it argues, enhances intelligence. The aim is to produce people who live "a mistake-free, stress-free life" in a Utopian, harmonious Britain. Science education would become "Unified field-based education" and pupils with behavioural difficulties would go to special colleges where their potential would be unlocked "through the experience of pure consciousness, whose nature is bliss". There is no mention of Yogic flying for teachers, which seems a missed opportunity.

Socialist Party of Great Britain.

No relation to the former Militant, the SPGB is the oldest socialist party in Britain, founded in 1904. It has five candidates.

The party believes that there is little point in tinkering with the education under a capitalist, class-ridden system; what is needed is global (non-violent) revolution. "Schools under the present system are little better than prisons for the pupils and the teachers."

The Socialist Party

(formerly Militant).

Nine candidates are standing in England and Wales, and 15 in Scotland, where the SP is part of the Scottish Socialist Alliance.

The manifesto concentrates on underfunding and inequality in education. Free nursery education should be provided for all three and four-year-olds and be integrated with day-care nurseries to help working parents. Current student loan debts would be cancelled and full grants (Pounds 4,200) restored. Private as well as opted-out schools would be reintegrated into the state sector.

Monster Raving Loony Party

Lord Sutch, the longest-serving party leader in Britain, is standing against John Major. The Loonies want a return to the 4Rs - reading, writing, rock and roll. Otherwise their policies sound surprisingly sane: nursery education for all children from the age of three, with grandparents recruited to help. This would engender respect for the older generation. Tax of 1p in the pound to be levied on all businesses employing more than 50 people to fund education reform. The party claims credit for the abolition of the 11-plus.

Socialist Labour Party

Arthur Scargill's breakaway party is expected to field 60 candidates. It refused to speak to The TES: "You're part of the Murdoch press, aren't you? We never speak to the Murdoch press."

The Green Party

89 candidates. The Greens' education policies emphasise the development of rounded individuals in human-scale education.

Very large secondaries should be split up and small schools, however tiny, must remain open. Public examinations would be phased out and replaced by "constructive, negotiated profiling", and pupils would not be graded for anything. School hours would be flexible, especially for under seven3.s and over 14s, and pupils would learn how to cook vegetarian and vegan meals and be informed about different forms and aspects of sexuality.

British National Party

50 candidates. Education policy concentrates on the "counter revolution against leftist-liberal political correctness, national consciousness and British history."

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