Anna Fazackerley: Why politicians will have to make cuts in schools

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Education was always going to be a major battleground in this tangled election, with each of the parties claiming to set out a brand new vision for parents. Yet privately they all knew that there were great fistfuls of nettles that any government, of any colour, would have to take a big gulp and grasp.

The first is finding serious efficiency savings from somewhere. Tightening belts, scything budgets, call it what you like – with this volcanic cloud of national debt looming over us it has to happen; even in crucial and emotive areas like education.

This doesn't mean we should start haemorrhaging brilliant teachers, though the great armies of support staff the Labour government bused in to schools to create the illusion of change should come under scrutiny.

While we must, of course, protect our schools, there is obvious room for improvement. Right now, there is no real incentive for schools to save money – any surplus is clawed back, effectively punishing prudence. So it should come as no surprise that many schools simply don't bother. Or, to be more charitable, they are so busy responding to the four million new Whitehall initiatives that have plopped onto their desks that saving cash is the least of their worries. External consultants who are starting to stick their noses into school books to find out where the fat might be report with horror that many don't seem to link their planning to their budgets.

One part of the schools budget that is ripe for squeezing is capital. Yes, schools have been in a lamentable state for years, and yes, new investment was desperately needed to fix lavatories, plug leaking roofs and mend broken heating. But the £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme was pitched as something more than sorting out the estate. In keeping with the Labour love of a narrative, every new capital project has been tasked with "educational transformation". The catch is that none of the architects, or designers, or local authorities knows what on earth that means or how a building should deliver it. Cue hoards of expensive advisers who feed on government obfuscation, and millions of pounds of waste.

Erecting glass palaces is all very well when you're happily sloshing money around, but a fantastic education is not about the building it is delivered in – it is about what happens inside it. The future will be about refurbishing existing buildings, and being more creative about what a school needs to look like.

When it comes to universities, a quick look at the gloomy faces of vice chancellors across the country shows they know they won't escape. The axe started slicing through their funding well before the election, and only those on especially strong medication imagine that there won't be more to come.

This brings us to the thorny issue of university fees. Lord Browne's independent review of fees is set to report this summer, letting this most spiky of genies out of the bottle. Politics aside, it is clear that fees need to go up if we are going to protect the quality of the student experience. Teaching has been underfunded for years and the current crisis is only going to make things worse.

This is why the Liberal Democrat's manifesto aspiration to phase out fees completely within six years was so utterly, frustratingly bonkers. For starters, it is an open secret in Westminster that key figures in the yellow corner – including the Lib Dem universities spokesperson and reportedly also Nick Clegg himself – privately support fees. It is screamingly obvious that the alluring whiff of the student vote simply proved too intoxicating. Yet, more to the point, they offered no real clue as to how they would pay for such a cynical policy. Nor did they have any proposals for propping up universities in the absence of this additional level of income.

Yes, fees have to go up, on the strict understanding that the poorest students will be protected and universities will be forced to invest in the student experience. But universities can't just sit back and wait for this to happen. This is bloody political terrain. It nearly flattened Tony Blair, from his enviable position sitting astride a big fat majority.

Unless vice chancellors end their wimpish silence and start explaining to the public why it is necessary to pay higher fees, and what they will mean for the students, they should assume that politicians will turn their backs and skulk quietly away.

The plain truth of this general election is that running the country in the state it is in now is going to be a painful business. Education will not dodge the bullets. So, put your hard hats on. When the political show ends, the tough changes will have to begin.

The writer is head of education at the think tank Policy Exchange