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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 15:26 GMT
Lib Dems' 'wish-list'

By education correspondent Mike Baker

The Liberal Democrats' education manifesto is something of a wish-list for teachers and students.

It promises most of the reforms for which teacher and student unions have been campaigning.


There spread across pages of the glossy tabloid manifesto document are all the promises speaker after speaker at teacher conferences has demanded

Political opponents, of course, will say it is easy to offer so much when the chances of having to deliver any of it are slim.

But there, spread across pages four and five of the glossy tabloid manifesto document, are all the promises speaker after speaker at teacher conferences has demanded: smaller class sizes, more classroom assistants, salaries for trainee teachers, the abolition of performance-related pay, and a reduction in targets, testing and the compulsory curriculum.

Top of the list is a promise to "cut class sizes on average to 25 for all five to 11 year olds".

'Trumping Labour'

This is a clear attempt to trump Labour whose last manifesto promised to cut class sizes to a maximum of 30, but only for five to seven year olds.

At first sight, this looks a very ambitious target.

For although Labour has nearly reached its target of eliminating infant class sizes over 30, there are still 747,000 children in junior classes (ages seven to 11) of over 30. That is more than one in three pupils of that age group.

'Average'

However, look closely at the Liberal Democrats' phraseology and you notice a key word which dilutes the class size promise: namely the word "average".

The current average class size for five to seven year olds is already virtually down to that level, standing at 25.2.

While the average for junior classes is higher (27.9), the key figure - the overall primary average - is still only 26.7.

So, the Liberal Democrats could achieve their class size promise of "a maximum average class size of 25" yet still have thousands of pupils in classes of over 30.

'Ambitious target'

Nevertheless, this is a more ambitious target than the other political parties are offering and the Liberal Democrats have made it slightly tougher for themselves by promising to achieve the "maximum average" in each local education authority.

That sets the bar higher than a national average and it will be hard to achieve in some areas, such as parts of the south-east, where average class sizes are well above the national average.

Overall, the "maximum average" approach is quite canny as it also reduces the potential for conflict with parental choice when, for example, a popular school might otherwise have had to turn away the 26th child.

It certainly represents a change of tack from the 1997 manifesto which had promised no child would be in a primary school class of more than 30.

Secondary school classes

The Liberal Democrats have also stated a "long-term goal" of achieving a "maximum average class size of 18" for all secondary school classes involving a practical element, such as science and modern languages.

While most teachers would agree that it is particularly important, for safety as well as educational reasons, to have smaller group sizes for practical lessons, this could have unforeseen effects.

For example, it could push up the class sizes in other subjects, such as maths and English, where class sizes are already higher than the secondary school average.

Tuition fees

Another area of the manifesto which requires careful reading is the promise to abolish university tuition fees throughout the UK.

However, the manifesto does not spell out what would replace the fee, which currently stands at 1,050 a year.

In fact, the Liberal Democrats would move to the system that is replacing up-front fees in Scotland.

This involves students paying a "graduate endowment" of around 2,000 which is payable after they have graduated and are earning a salary.

Although the endowment is not portrayed as a "fee" but as a contribution to the general funding of higher education, some say the Scottish system has replaced "up-front fees" with "back-end fees".

The Liberal Democrats point out that in Scotland around 50% of students are exempt from the "graduate endowment" and they would expect a similar proportion to be exempt in the rest of the UK.

Teachers' freedom

Much of the rest of the manifesto meets the demands of the teaching profession for greater freedom from central control and more professional autonomy.

So the tests for seven year olds will be scrapped, national standards targets replaced, and the national curriculum slimmed down. Teachers will like that, but what about parents?

One group, though , will find the Liberal Democrats imposing more, not less, central control.

Independent schools, currently exempt from the national curriculum, will have to offer the Liberal Democrats' slimmed-down model, the "Minimum Curriculum Entitlement".

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