In front of you lie the golden sands and villa-lined fronds of Dubai's Palm Jumeirah - an artificial archipelago big enough to be seen from space - where just over a decade ago there was only turquoise sea.
Less than half a century ago, this former fishing town was a desert backwater. Today you can look out at high-rise skylines worthy of Manhattan, with the distinctive spire of the world's tallest building poking through the haze.
The view from a balcony in Dubai's opulent Atlantis hotel is testament to the incredible transformation that can occur when government, business and big money come together in pursuit of profit and their perception of the national good.
Earlier this year, representatives from 29 national governments (including some from the world's poorest countries), the United Nations, charities and major players in private schooling met at this five-star pleasure palace. They were there to discuss a change in education provision that organisers of the inaugural Global Education and Skills Forum argue has the potential to be every bit as transformative as Dubai's astonishing reinvention.
The premise behind the event was simple. Many governments today lack the means to provide schooling for everyone, as illustrated by the looming failure to reach the Millennium Development Goal on universal primary education (see box, page 24). So the private sector should fill the gap.
This isn't some abstract piece of futurology or wishful thinking from edu- businesses keen to improve their market share - although there were many present at the forum with a lot to gain. This is a seismic shift in global education that is already under way and likely to accelerate. For good or for ill, it is likely to change schooling, not just in poor countries but in rich developed ones as well. It will raise important questions as to who is in charge of education and what it is for, and its full implications are only just starting to emerge.
The United Nations has calculated that meeting "the learning needs of all children, youths and adults" would cost an extra US$16 billion (pound;10.3 billion) a year even if developing countries allocated the extra spending deemed reasonable after the UN's analysis of their economies.
According to Mohan Kaul, Commonwealth Business Council co-chairman and one of the forum's organisers: "Given the challenges ahead, governments have realised that it is beyond their capacity and means to achieve the task of providing education for all."
International aid has been the traditional way of attempting to fill such gaps in the developing world. But figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development show that donations from rich to poor countries have begun to fall in real terms as the financial crisis bites.
Now, growing voices claim that support for governments of these countries was never the most effective solution anyway. A new alternative - bolstering existing private education - is starting to make headway.
In Ghana, if you walk along the unfinished roads of the market in Accra's infamous Agbogbloshie slum, through a maze of stalls and wooden shacks, you will come to the equally ramshackle building that houses Queensland School.
The low-cost private school for children aged 4 to 11 was set up by Paulina Nlandon, a yam seller who felt compelled to do something to educate market traders' children. It quickly grew to serve more than 400 students and is now helped by the IDP Foundation, a US non-profit organisation working to build the capacity of Ghana's many grass-roots fee-paying schools.
The foundation's research shows that the private schools sector in the West African country grew by 26 per cent between 2006 and 2009, by which time some 6,000 low-cost institutions were open. It is part of a global movement of informal private schools, which free-marketeers such as British academic James Tooley say are necessary because government provision is either inadequate or non-existent.
Schools like these have also sprung up to serve poor communities in countries that include Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and India (as many as 70 per cent of children in Delhi are said to attend them).
IDP Foundation president Irene Pritzker is one of many people inspired by Tooley's work in highlighting these schools.
"Billions of dollars have gone into education aid over the past 60 to 70 years, yet we are so far away from receiving education for all," she says.
"The reality is that the poorest of the poor have given up on education as a universal right. Despite their poverty they see it as a commodity that they are going to have to pay for."
Respected educationalists such as Sir Michael Barber argue that this reality, caused by government failures to provide adequate schooling, is now an unavoidable part of the future.
Sir Michael, who was education adviser to Tony Blair when Blair was the British prime minister and who now works for publishing and education company Pearson, wrote in December: "So many poor parents have voted with their feet that it is no longer possible to solve the problem of universal primary education without taking the low-cost private sector into account. The cat is out of the bag."
Others warn that supporting these schools is a big mistake because by charging any fees, however small, the sector only makes the poor poorer. Nevertheless, the schools are not going away, and are slowly becoming a more recognised, better supported feature of education in many countries.
But the privatisation agenda at the Dubai forum - an event partly organised by Gems Education, one of the world's biggest private school chains - stretched well beyond low-cost alternatives to struggling state schools. It also promoted the far more lucrative idea of governments partnering with business to help deliver state education.
And it wasn't just business representatives who embraced the idea. "In delivering education, the state should not be alone," says Qian Tang, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's assistant director-general for education. "The private sector can often bring a new dimension to education programmes."
And while one or two ministers walking the Atlantis' gaudy marble floors seemed as interested in tax-free shopping as in solving their countries' education deficits, most seemed more than happy to talk up the idea of public-private partnership in state education.
Uganda's minister of finance, planning and economic development, Maria Kiwanuka, was typical. "Private providers are playing an increasingly important role in education in Uganda," she says. "Education remains a largely public good but high-quality education requires innovative programmes and initiatives in addition to public resources. This is where the private sector comes in with its innate agility and innovative thinking."
Again, this is a process that is well under way as schooling evolves into an enormous transnational business. Total global education expenditure is expected to rise from US$4.5 trillion (pound;2.9 trillion) last year to US$6.4 trillion (pound;4.1 trillion) by 2017. And, within that, market analysts from the US firm GSV Edu expect the for-profit education sector to more than double from US$590.9 billion (pound;379.8 billion) in 2012 to US$1.3 trillion (pound;839.9 billion) over the same five years.
But this is not just about cash-strapped developing countries entering into partnerships with private companies to deliver education they could not otherwise provide. There is a parallel huge and growing market for selling ready-made or tailored education services to ambitious countries looking for a quick way to transform themselves into "knowledge-based economies".
Sometimes this involves authorities in newly wealthy territories such as Abu Dhabi (see box, opposite) or Kazakhstan buying in packages of school services that might include a curriculum, teaching and leadership training, and assessment from one or more private providers. In other cases - such as China, where there is a phenomenal growth in English language education in state schools - the demand comes from the bottom up, from an emergent middle class.
And this flood of education know-how, infrastructure and philosophy from abroad can be expected to have an impact that goes well beyond the countries that are importing it. The growth in the experience and global power of the companies and organisations providing these services is also likely to influence education in their host countries.
The IGCSE is a very early example of this effect. The qualification was devised in 1985 by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), the exporting wing of the University of Cambridge's assessment service, as a way of allowing students in other countries to have an English-style education, similar to the GCSE for the 14-16 age group in the UK.
But in later years as the domestic version of the GCSE evolved, concerns grew about the qualification among increasing numbers of UK schools, which began to migrate to the international option. By last month, 1,339 UK schools were offering at least one of CIE's IGCSEs, and 963 of these were state schools, representing a large slice of England's government-funded sector.
And this is a qualification that was introduced more than a quarter of a century ago, long before the current globalisation in education policy and services began to take off.
Last year, CIE had 50,000 entries for its British-style exams from state schools in China, a demand likely to increase exponentially. There are now 1 million students a year opting out of China's standard university entrance exam. That already represents more than the entire UK A-level market and the figure is growing fast.
When Western education companies start becoming engaged overseas on that kind of scale it would be naive not to expect the lessons they learn abroad to start to reflect back on the services they offer schools at home. And that process will only be intensified as international performance measures such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) are taken increasingly seriously.
Anyone hoping that long-established, well-funded state school systems in the developed world can remain immune to the growing private sector movement in their poorer counterparts is likely to be disappointed. But would it necessarily be a good thing to remain purely state-run?
"There is nothing wrong with using a private sector organisation. It brings many benefits," argues Chris Kirk, chief executive of the education services arm of Gems.
"The private sector can research and develop products over the long term. It can invest over the long term, well outside the five-year electoral cycle of most governments, and we can share knowledge and practices globally in a way that individual governments can't. They can talk to each other but they can't run systems that cut across different countries."
That transnational experience and practice could prove the "killer application" for the global education privatisation now gaining pace. Governments keen to climb international league tables will find successful private operators difficult to ignore, even if some of the language they use jars. And for many it will indeed jar. Words such as "product" will not sit easily with those who view education as an end itself, too important to be compromised by the murky world of business and profit.
Others, from countries where that high-minded approach might be seen as an unaffordable luxury, such as Uganda's Kiwanuka, take a more utilitarian view.
The minister sees the private sector's link to markets as one of its most important contributions to education. Her government's job, she says, is to "provide a framework for quality education to make sure it does not develop in a vacuum but is developed into the marketplace".
"Because a child or a youth who has been trained or educated but cannot find a job is a most dangerous person," she adds.
It wasn't always this way, as Michael O'Sullivan, CIE's chief executive, points out. Once, when an impoverished country wanted to improve its schools, it would do so without outside help. O'Sullivan may head one of the most successful global education providers - albeit a not-for-profit one - but he is not entirely happy with the notion that developing countries today must automatically turn to the private sector to bolster their school systems.
"It does sound to me to be somewhat self-serving," says O'Sullivan, who used to work for the British Council building educational and cultural links with China and East Asia. "Some countries achieved spectacular success in developing their education systems and their economies in step with each other in the past. They haven't always gone for a turnkey solution provided by foreign interests.
"South Korea is a good example. At the end of the Korean War (in 1953) it was one of the world's poorest countries and there wasn't much left standing. Look at what it had achieved by the 1980s. And it has sustained those gains. But it largely relied on what it was capable of doing itself. It harnessed its own capacity. It didn't pay someone to fix everything."
Adult literacy in South Korea rose from an estimated 22 per cent in 1945 to about 93 per cent by the late 1980s. In the most recent Pisa tests in 2009, the country finished second in reading and fifth in maths.
But it was a long process and much of it was achieved under autocratic, authoritarian and sometimes military rule. Today, more democratic administrations could well be tempted by the quicker wins being promised by private operators.
Dubai's economy has been described as the "ultimate public-private partnership". But a closer look at the emirate throws up some of the obvious limitations of the approach. It was public money that provided the initial impetus for the creation of this gleaming desert metropolis and it was public money - provided by neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi - that bailed it out when the global financial crisis hit in 2009.
Some gung-ho radicals at the Dubai forum called for government to "get out of the way" and leave education to the private sector. But they were in a minority. Most seemed to accept the need for authorities to play a supervisory role at the very least.
As Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, director general of Abu Dhabi's Education Council - which has used at least 12 external education service providers - puts it: "We need to be a conductor."
And Kirk acknowledges that more analysis is needed on what works. "So much of the debate hinges on opinion and people's beliefs and yet there ought to be a wealth of evidence out there," he says. "Are we doing enough to monitor and evaluate the kind of initiatives that are going on?"
Patrick Dlamini, chief executive of the government-owned Development Bank of South Africa, offered one example of what can go wrong when there is a sudden growth in schools outside the state system.
"Unprecedented levels of private schooling systems" have emerged in South Africa since the end of apartheid, he says. The problem is that they have been "poaching the best of brains from the public schooling system. The government is left with poor-quality teaching and inexperienced teachers because now the private sector has taken the creme de la creme. How do you balance that?"
Nevertheless, when it came to fulfilling the education potential of sub- Saharan Africa, Dlamini is clear that "governments can never do this alone".
So are there any self-sufficient South Koreas out there to prove him wrong? Could a poor but ambitious developing country still become the sole master of its educational destiny? Or has embracing the private sector become the only realistic option?
"The context has changed," O'Sullivan admits. "There is more international comparison now informing policymaking. The globalising trend in the economy and the relatively free movement of goods, capital and labour forces means that doing it on your own doesn't really work any more."
In 2000, all 193 United Nations countries pledged to achieve universal primary education: by 2015 children everywhere in the world, boys and girls alike, would be able to complete a full course of primary schooling (typically covering the 4-11 age group).
But with less than two years to go, there is little chance of this key Millennium Development Goal being met.
A UN progress report in 2010 noted that although the primary school enrolment rate had risen from 82 to 90 per cent since 1999, "a closer look at the data reveals that nearly all of this growth occurred between 1999 and 2004, and that progress in reducing the number of out-of-school children slowed considerably after 2004".
- 67m children were still out of primary school in 2008
- 74m secondary-aged young people (typically 12- to 15-year-olds) were also out of school
- 793m adults were illiterate
Source: Unesco General Education System Quality AnalysisDiagnosis Framework
Building a sustainable future for Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is fabulously wealthy. It is able to pump millions of pounds into projects such as the UK's Manchester City Football Club, and it rescued its ailing neighbour Dubai four years ago with a pound;6.13 billion (US$9.54 billion) bailout.
But its rulers are preparing for the future. "We are only 42 years old as a nation and we were Bedouin before that," explains Mugheer Khamis Al Khaili, director general of Abu Dhabi's Education Council.
"We know the oil will run out one day. Will our children be able to go back to the desert? I don't think so."
This is why a sustained drive to improve education in the emirate has begun so that these young people can instead go on to become "the engineers of the future". An analysis of Abu Dhabi's school system concluded that it wasn't producing the right calibre of student. Schools were emphasising rote learning rather than "active learning" and "21st- century skills" such as communication.
"The question was `what is the fastest way to change the mindset of teachers'," Al Khaili says. His council's solution was to turn to outside education providers, including British-based Gems Education Solutions, CfBT, SSAT, Nord Anglia and New Zealand's Cognition Education.
These organisations won contracts to help Abu Dhabi to retrain its teachers and enable them to assess and differentiate between students, moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach.
They are aiding the introduction of inspections to private and state schools. Inspections are swiftly followed by pressure for improvements, combined with more training for school leaders.
"We are doing this because we need to give autonomy to our schools, like the UK is doing today with academies (government-funded schools with greater autonomy than other state schools)," says Al Khaili. "But we cannot give that autonomy before we know the schools are capable."
National tests and specialist schools will also follow. So a package of reforms similar to those that evolved in England over several decades is being brought to Abu Dhabi in a matter of years using a carefully sequenced central plan.
But why use external companies? Why not carry out these reforms "in- house"?
"We need their help to support our reforms," says Al Khaili. "When we started, (Abu Dhabi Education Council) was so small it just couldn't do it.
"I have the option to choose between different providers and we now have our own experts. But we don't need to be a dinosaur or a giant organisation. We need to be a conductor."
Photo credit: Alamy