Thin gruel in the tartan classroom

THE Scottish Nationalists are currently benefiting from the anti-Blairist mood. They are serious contenders in the eight-month race to Holyrood, and it hardly seems too early to probe below the independence rhetoric in search of policy intentions.

With this in mind I recently received an up-to-date SNP information pack. To my surprise this included elderly pieces from the pen of former spokesman Andrew Welsh, fulminating against previous Tory policies on nursery vouchers and student maintenance grants. Where was the evidence of creative and forward thinking on the key issues of 1999?

More recent was the SNP general election budget (May 1997), described as offering four years of investment in public services in a fully costed manifesto, as opposed to Labour's promises of two more years of Tory "cuts".

Not much vision here either. The promise to throw millions at everything in sight, from the restoration of full student grant to increased child benefit for every family (whether they need it or not) - electioneering substitutes for any thoughtful discussion of new policies for a new era.

With relief I came across the September issue of Snapshot, the magazine for SNP members. Perhaps something on current issues here? Helen Liddell can defend herself, but you have to smile when debate is at the level of "Helen Liddell threatens to impose her views on beleaguered teachers"; and "Labour are using accountancy methods that would make Robert Maxwell proud".

This from a party which proposes, from a yard-long shopping list, inter alia, to introduce a Scottish army, navy and air force (helicopter and fixed wing) - and a party which proposes in its first four years seriously to reduce Scotland's sky-high loan debt, landed on the country by years of council profligacy.

A party, also, which proposes to achieve all this in spite of the almost certain disappearance of anything resembling Scotland's current favoured treatment - the Barnett formula, which allows Scotland's local authorities 25 per cent more to spend than their English counterparts. No wonder Scottish business trembles.

Next was Towards the Scottish Parliament: Policy intentions for the 1999 elections. The SNP apparently wishes to "restore the standing of Scottish education" and "promote the active involvement of parents". Surely most folks support motherhood and apple pie?

We learn that the SNP is "not against Higher Still". I suppose that's something, although enthusiastic commitment seems to be in short supply. The party will "draw a line under the ideological meddling that has characterised the Tory and Labour approach to education policy".

Could this mean the reversal of 18 years of Conservative reforms in Scottish education in the name of raising standards, many of which reforms are being carried steadily forward by Labour? A return to the days when accountability to parents was not much in evidence, and there were no Scottish national curriculum guidelines?

If so, shouldn't we be told?

We do learn that schools in an SNP Scotland would as a matter of course provide ethnic study courses to all ethnic children. The mind boggles at the cost - and the wisdom - of teaching Gujerati history to pupils who might actually benefit from learning more about the UK.

More sinister is the SNP pledge to follow Labour along the route of crafting school targets "according to the cultural environment in which the school is situated". In plainspeak, this means that disadvantaged children in disadvantaged areas will have lower targets and less expected of them, the self-fulfilling prophecy which institutionalises disadvantage down the generations.

A selective restoration of the standing of Scottish education? Thin gruel indeed.

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