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Molly Kingsley is a writer and is co-founder of parent group UsforThem.

Last week, I watched the film version of Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys.

The play is of a different era, crossing as it does a reprehensible line, and makes for uncomfortable watching at times.  Doubtless many would have it erased for that, but it relays perfectly a critical question at the heart of education policy: whether knowledge is for knowledge’s sake (“the transmission of knowledge is in itself an erotic act”, as Bennett puts it), or whether knowledge only exists to serve some higher purpose (“there is inspiration, but how do I quantify that?”) – in this case to prepare a group of lowly Yorkshire lads for Oxbridge entrance.

Being in – one hopes – the final throes of a grave year and a half of disruption to the education system, we have a rare opportunity to look again at the vision and values that underpin it.  Waffly and indulgent though the question at the heart of The History Boys sounds, it’s key to understanding the type and level of investment now needed into education.  Is the purpose of education to prepare children for the world of work and to leverage their potential as future economic assets; or is it to enable children to flourish and grow simply as children?

A common criticism of October’s Budget was that whilst the pots of money offered – for SEN children, skills and family hubs – were of themselves reasonably generous – it disregarded calls from the stakeholdersthink thanks and politicians from across the spectrum (as well as the Education Select Committee and Children’s Commissioner) to deliver a long term and secure funding settlement for education, equivalent say to that in place for health.  Education, so the argument goes, was the loser, in a year when there was a strong moral case to make it the winner.

Investment into education reaps long-term financial dividends for the state with a clear correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.  But an IFS study in the wake of the budget shows that whilst healthcare spending has increased 42 per cent since the Conservatives took office in 2010, education spend has risen just three perc ent during the same period.

Politically, after a year and a half spent bearing witness to the greatest ever socio-educational experiment ever conducted on children and young people in the form of school and university closures, parents could only ever applaud a government that showed a genuine and long term commitment to investing in children.

However, whilst I wholeheartedly agree with the calls for a secure funding plan for education, I can see there may yet be a silver lining to be found from the fact that this was not education’s ‘Boom Year’.

As a result of the pandemic, children are months behind where they would otherwise be and disruption is not only ongoing, but escalating.  Limiting activities, switching to remote, requiring students wear masks throughout lessons: none of these are downside free measures for education; and with a Covid cloud hanging overhead the threat of school closures still looms.

The immediate task is simply to stabilise the system.  That is not a question of money, but of politics, and is why Robert Halfon’s Ten Minute Bill of last week is so important.  It’s also why whopping investment into the education system – now – may have been premature.

The Budget, with its focus on skills and catch up, assumes a view of education that sees children primarily as economic assets – preparing pupils for the world of work and getting the skills they and the country need to prosper.  In a year in which growth and helping those hardest hit by the pandemic is a priority, its focus on these elements was understandable.  However, it’s also a year where the well-being of children has never been so precarious, and the reality is that many parents would prefer focus to be on the latter.

These are often seen as two dichotomous views but, in truth, there is both a need and a place for a long term vision which breaches this divide to recognise that whilst children are children, they’re also the next economic engine room of the country.

The economic case for that middle ground is strong – investment into wellbeing reaps dividends in attainment, and attainment often translates  to earnings. In this regard, Nadhim Zahawi’s dismissal of calls last week to commit to limited pilot schemes trialling longer days was disappointing – used as it could have been both for academic catch-up and non-academic activities.

There would be no more perfect way to end education’s fraught last 18 months than, with a renewed collective commitment from stakeholders and policy makers, to redefine and then implement a vision for that education system which served both children and state.

To coin a theme from The History Boys, this must now shift from subjunctive to reality.