LEADING ARTICLE : A better class of promise

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The Independent Online
Here is a drearily familiar tale. A primary school of about 250 pupils in south London has had its budget for next year cut by about pounds 7,000. The local authority has avoided such cuts in education for as long as it can. Other things have suffered instead: library services, town hall jobs, the usual list. Now it is impossible to put off education cuts. So, at that school, and throughout that borough, and in schools everywhere, parings and shavings will be discussed and reluctantly implemented: the knife will get that bit closer to the educational bone. The discussions in each school will include the following kinds of questions: With around 35 pupils in each class it would be inconceivable (wouldn't it?) to lose teachers; however, if an experienced teacher were to leave, maybe a cheaper, younger replacement would suffice. Is it possible to reduce the pounds 5 per pupil spent on books last year (compared with pounds 80 per pupil at well-funded private schools). Photocopying is expensive - can we dig out those spirit copiers (a technology already outmoded when today's primary parents were themselves at school)? Pencils and pens are costing too much; can parents be persuaded to buy them or raid their offices? Scrimp, save, beg, steal.

Paddy Ashdown and the Liberal Democrats have views on all this. Since they will not be forming the government after the general election, their views tend to be either mocked or ignored. Thus their proposal for a 1p "hypothecated" increase in basic rate income tax which would raise some pounds 2bn a year, has been widely dismissed as generalised bluster which will never be put to the test. To the extent that political commentators bother to analyse the proposal they have dismissed it as too little, spread too thinly to do any good. Show us the flesh on this proposal, the other parties and their media supporters have challenged Mr Ashdown.

Today, the Liberal Democrat leader will be trying to do just that when he addresses the party's spring conference in Cardiff. His message, as it was in his last election campaign, is that spending money on education is a priority if this country is to move with confidence into the next millennium. Alone of the parties this time, he will say, the Liberal Democrats want to raise income tax to pay for education. Not only will he spell out how it will be raised (the hypothecated penny) he will also answer his sceptical critics by spelling out how it will be distributed.

Given their chance, the Liberal Democrats would raise pounds 10bn over five years. According to their figures, a primary school of average size - say 250 pupils like our south London school above - would, in the first year, be pounds 16,000 better off than under present budgets. One only has to look at the scrimpings and savings being considered by our example above, to see that such a sum would completely transform the lives of teachers and pupils. It would allow the purchase of a computer, of CD- Roms, a photocopier, a television, a video; and it would still leave pounds 4,000 for textbooks, paper, pens and pencils. A secondary school of 1,000 pupils would, say the Liberal Democrats, have pounds 110,000 to spend on computers, books and equipment. In addition, they claim, all children aged between five and eleven could be taught in classes of 30 or fewer pupils.

Tony Blair's has said that his priorities for government are "education, education and education". He has been notably cautious, however, when translating this into hard cash. His intention, he says, is to shift the balance of resources from social security to education during the lifetime of a parliament - an admirable objective, but expressed with all the usual codicils of Labour commitments, "as resources permit", "when affordable" etc. It is difficult not to wonder just how quickly resources would permit even a modest improvement in education funding under a Labour government. Even Mr Blair's one firm commitment (to reduce class sizes for five- to seven-year-olds) is based on phasing out the assisted places scheme. It will take years for this to produce the cash Mr Blair's education secretary will need for better pupil/teacher ratios.

The shadow Chancellor's first budget priority is, we learn, to cut VAT on domestic fuel giving consumers a pounds 400m fillip (and doing unquantified damage to the environment in the process). Perhaps, before he draws up his final plans, Mr Brown should look at Mr Ashdown's speech and consider which is more important, a quickly forgotten, and spent, bonus on the electricity and gas bill, or basic educational tools for the country's schoolchildren.