Caution, caution, caution
These should be the words echoing around the Treasury right now.
They should be followed by:
Education, education, education.
Probably the most memorable British political slogan since Harold Macmillan’s 1957 belter about “never having it so good”, Tony Blair’s 1997 election mantra played a significant part in him sweeping the Tories into electoral Armageddon.
George Osborne, who is putting the finishing touches to Wednesday’s spending review, would do well to remember how well Blair’s catchphrase resonated with British voters.
Because the cuts being prepared for education are going to be deep. While it might not be as dramatic as the 30-plus per cent apparently being demanded of some other departments, the 20-25 per cent that we’re hearing about is going to really hurt.
Parents will start noticing when their kids come home complaining that physics was taught to a class of 60, that their classroom was freezing because the heating was off or that the sports hall roof was leaking.
This is likely to represent a step change. Despite much of the teaching profession’s protestations, the relationship between the coalition’s Department for Education and the general public can be characterised in two ways.
Firstly, most didn’t understand or really care about the structural changes brought in by Michael Gove, such as academisation. Apart from maybe ending grade inflation, which is popular.
Secondly, the majority (as was proven by the general election) accepted that there was a need – as with the rest of the public purse – for some kind of spending retrenchment in schools. They knew the Era of Plenty had finally come to an end.
But all this is about to change. With a pupil places bulge, a recruitment crisis and budgets dropping, the consequences of the new, much more severe, cuts are not going to go unnoticed.
Some heads are combative: “It’s going to be desperate,” one said to me. “But I’m going to allow myself to go into the red. What can the DfE do? They can’t let me go bust. They’re going to have to find more money.”
Others, however, will do everything within their power to make ends meet. And there will be no way that pupils, teachers and parents will choose to overlook how this kind of austerity plays out.
I have no doubt (in fact, I know) that the education secretary Nicky Morgan and her staff have fought tooth and nail for every penny from the Treasury, and that they have seen off some of the wilder demands, but now they’re going to have to put a brave face on a situation that is undeniably grim.
George Osborne should give this some thought before he signs off on the most dramatic cuts to the education budget in a generation – teachers, parents and pupils make up a lot of voters and future voters, and I suspect they’re not going to be impressed with what’s coming down the line.