Election `97: Radical schools plan at a price

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Indy Politics
The Liberal Democrats have a well-worn mantra on education policy - others may claim education is their priority and passion, but only if we are prepared to pay for improvement.

A pledge to put an extra penny in the pound on income tax to invest in education is Paddy Ashdown's best known and most promoted election promise, and part of a package of measures which mark the Liberal Democrats out as the most radical of the three main parties on education.

Teachers, promised smaller class sizes and more cash for resources, would regard such a deal as "an apple for the teacher with jam on it", as one delegate sceptically told his union conference this Easter.

However, the party which is least likely to win power on May 1 has also troubled to include the least concrete detail on the mechanics of its proposals.

Only the Liberal Democrats are promising to bring all schools, including grant maintained, back into a single frame work under "light touch" local authority control.

Labour also promises to abolish GM status but will offer schools the option of staying at arm's length from local education authorities along the same lines as church schools.

The Liberal Democrats are against selection, but would leave the future of grammar schools to be decided locally. However, they omit to explain how local education authories could measure public support or opposition to grammars.

On class size, the party goes beyond Labour's promise to a maximum of 30 for five- , six- and seven-year-olds, pledging to extend the same ceiling to all primary schools within five years.

The National Curriculum, to be tinkered with by Labour, would be cheerfully scrapped by the Liberal Democrats, who pledge to replace it with a teacher- pleasing Minimum Curriculum Entitlement.

The party is also more generous than its rivals towards training and further education - the unfashionable Cinderella sector which frequently complains of losing out to schools and universities. In a radical, uncosted but highly expensive move, it promises to pay course fees for all adults on approved further education courses, which students must currently finance themselves.

The money would be paid into individual learning accounts available to every adult and including contributions from government, individuals and employers.

The Liberal Democrats, with pounds 2bn annually in extra income tax to spend, sprinkle education spending pledges more liberally through their manifesto than the other parties. First call on the pot of money would be nursery education. Like Labour, it would scrap nursery vouchers and seek to offer early years education not only for four-year-olds but all three-year-olds whose parents wanted it.

The pounds 2bn pot, looking somewhat elastic-sided, is also earmarked for increased invest- ment in books and equipment, for higher education and primary class size reductions.

More jam on the apple for teachers is a pounds 500m pledge over five years to tackle school repairs and maintenance. But the spending would only dent the estimated pounds 3.2bn backlog on repairing crumbling schools.