Binning BSF and killing a few quangos won't deliver the chancellor's savings. Prepare for the worst
We are waiting for the biggest spending cuts to hit this country since the Second World War. Ministers hope to save billions over the next five years to put the nation's books back in order. At the BBC, where I am education correspondent, we are planning a range of programmes over the next few weeks, on TV, radio and online, that will examine where the cuts will fall. Crucially they will look at what the impact might be, and hopefully clarify the issues for our audience.
So what might be the consequence for teachers, pupils and parents across the UK?
The challenge for the Coalition was explained to me by the Conservative leader of one of the biggest local authorities in England during the general election campaign: "We are now expected to educate children from two-and-a-half to 18 - and doing more inevitably costs more."
In England, we have got used to 15 hours of state-subsidised childcare for the very youngest; breakfast and after-school clubs to help working parents; class sizes of 30 for infants and education maintenance grants to encourage the least well-off to stay on at school.
Under Labour, billions of pounds of extra investment went into education, more teachers staffed new schools, and a university education was enjoyed by half of all school leavers. But all of that costs, and the UK is a substantially poorer country than it was three years ago. The Treasury says #163;80 billion has to be saved over the next five years to put the national finances back in the black. As the coalition Government has pledged to maintain spending in the NHS and overseas development, teachers could be forgiven for looking nervously over their shoulders this month, wondering whether chancellor George Osborne's sharpest chopping knife is heading their way. Although cuts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will be implemented by the devolved governments, the chancellor ultimately holds all the power.
At least schools are in favoured place. It's politically unpalatable to see children suffer because of the nation's debt. Parents won't like to see teaching jobs lost, class sizes get larger or children going without the necessary tools to learn. Less voter-friendly departments will see cuts of 25 per cent or more - the Department for Education will be asked to cut around 20 per cent. Nevertheless, Education Secretary Michael Gove and his team are lobbying Treasury officials hard. The public pleading was laid out on the front page of the Daily Telegraph on September 4, where it reported that a rise in the birth rate is putting huge pressure on schools. Over the next four years, 350,000 extra places will be needed - that equates to 375 new schools.
In his first Budget speech as chancellor, George Osborne indicated that he saw schools as a possible special case. "Of course not all departments will receive the same settlement. I recognise, for example, the particular pressure on our education system..." So some cause for optimism there.
However, teachers, pupils and parents in England have already witnessed belt tightening and some have suffered as a result. In July, I attended a rally of teaching unions and angry parents at Central Hall in Westminster. They were furious at Mr Gove's decision to dismantle the #163;55 billion Building Schools for the Future fund. He regarded the scheme, to rebuild England's secondaries, as an inefficient waste of taxpayers' money. He promises there will be money in the spending review to fund new schools, but it is safe to assume that it won't be as much as under BSF, and may mean schools patching up rather than moving in to gleaming new buildings. Around 800 schools are in a limbo land of leaky roofs and peeling paintwork - with little idea about when things might improve.
In the classroom, extra money for one-to-one learning has gone and the Every Child Matters programmes have also been cut. The consequences for white working-class boys who slipped down the attainment ladder may be considerable. Local councils have #163;300 million less to spend on services such as school transport, there been savings in the rollout of diplomas and vocational courses, and Becta, the quango which was supposed to deliver better IT services to schools, has been scrapped.
But these savings are modest and the Government may need to cut as much as #163;11 billion from the DfE budget over the next five years. Scrapping teaching assistant posts will be deemed less politically sensitive than making qualified teachers redundant. Breakfast and after-school clubs are Government subsidised and ministers may take the view that they can be cut. Fifteen hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds might now be considered a luxury - especially as the jury is out on its educational benefit.
And then, of course, there are the costs associated with pay and pensions. Spend this year's increase wisely because there will be a two-year pay freeze from next April. Teachers have already seen their pension indexation change from the retail price to the consumer price index - which means pension pots could grow more slowly. The Government is also looking at raising the level of employee contributions and increasing the retirement age to 66.
It will be a tough few years for those who are involved in educating the UK's children.
Gillian Hargreaves is education correspondent for BBC News. The BBC will be providing analysis in the run-up to the comprehensive spending review on October 20, and as it happens, on its channels and online at www.bbc.co.ukspendingreview.