Unions turn up heat on ministers

Clear signs that the Labour Government will remain on trial after awful August emerged at the reconvened annual congress of the STUC in Glasgow. Ministers were warned that the welfare-to-work programme and their stance on educational standards were not meeting with universal acclaim. And there was strong condemnation of the "ill-considered and regressive" response to the Dearing report on higher education.

The congress, cut short because of the general election, heard that many of the young people at whom welfare-to-work was aimed considered it to be just another job scheme. Mark Elder, on behalf of the STUC youth conference, said: "People are going to be trapped. They are going to be locked into a tight space, with nowhere to turn and no one to help them. So it is not surprising to find that their perception of welfare-to-work is 'different name, same game'."

Brian Wilson, the Education and Industry Minister, warned the national launch of the programme last week that the policy would encounter cynicism because of failed attempts in the past to tackle youth unemployment, and said the word "scheme" should be banished from the discussion.

Mr Elder's verdict was: "It's another YTS, another Skillseekers, another con."

The youth wing's resolution, which was approved, gave the policy a general welcome but took exception to the withdrawal of benefit if 18 to 25-year-olds refused a job with an employer, placement with the voluntary sector, work with an environmental task force, or were not in full-time education or training. Young people would simply accept the benefit penalties, Mr Elder said.

Ian McCalman, president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, congratulated the Government on finding extra money for education in the Budget, ending opting out in Scotland, axing the assisted places scheme and redirecting the money into reducing class sizes, abolishing nursery vouchers and withdrawing compulsion from secondary testing and teacher appraisal.

But Mr McCalman said these measures had to be seen in the context of massive cuts amounting to Pounds 150 million from education budgets over the past two years. "Supplies to schools have been cut, technology has become outdated and not replaced, charges have been introduced and increased for school meals, music instruction and nursery provision," he said.

The loss of 1,500 teaching jobs had led to larger classes, less subject choice, less co-operative teaching, less learning support and less English as a second language. "It is difficult not to be cynical about calls for higher standards against this background," Mr McCalman said. "I can think of no other aspect of the economy where it is expected to achieve higher standards of output without commensurate levels of investment, unless it be in sweated labour workshops."

The EIS won backing for its motion calling for further increases in capital expenditure and full funding for current and new developments. Mr McCalman said the Government's commitment to inherited spending levels would mean "a further crisis of funding".

The Association of University Teachers (Scotland) also found support for an emergency motion which attacked the extension of student loans to tuition fees and the end of maintenance grants.

Peter Breeze of Glasgow University, the association's honorary secretary, said the move would more than double student debt while doing nothing to solve the funding crisis in higher education because every penny raised between now until the next general election would go towards setting up the new loan system.

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