Thousands of families will turn their backs on schools and begin educating their children at home during the next two decades, one of the country's leading educationists has predicted.
The move away from traditional schooling will be encouraged by business and industry, which will replace conventional company perks such as cars with a range of educational benefits that will make it easier for employees to tutor children at home.
These are the predictions of Professor David Hargreaves of Cambridge University who believes that unstoppable social changes will defeat comprehensive school supporters' attempts to create a more uniform state education system.
Despite the election of the Blair Government the fissures in the education landscape are about to open even wider, he says.
There will be a huge increase in the number of children educated at home, and the independent and specialist schools sectors will grow in strength during the first few years of the next millennium.
The mainstream state school system, by contrast, will eventually provide little more than "custodial" education for the underclass, Professor Hargreaves believes.
He also envisages that national pay rates for teachers will be abandoned and says that the general teaching council promised by the Government will only survive if it becomes a highly elite institution, representing a small body of well-qualified and highly competent educational "experts", at the top of a complex pyramid of para-educators.
Professor Hargreaves suspects that the offer of professional autonomy, which he supports "fervently", has come too late for teachers.
Writing in the current issue of School Leadership and Management, he argues that the envisaged developments will be fuelled by the post-modern fragmentation that has affected other social institutions throughout the West.
"Over the next 25 years I what counts as education will merge with other social institutions whose boundaries are also melting - households, workplaces, religious centres," he writes.
"Some will see this as a fragmentation to be feared and resisted. I see it as bearing opportunities as well as challenges.
"Indeed, unless we dismantle and reconstruct many social institutions, including education, conceptions of 'the learning society' or 'lifelong education' will remain pure rhetoric. The traditional 'education system' must be replaced by polymorphic educational provision - an infinite variety of multiple forms of teaching and learning."
Professor Hargreaves, a respected, but controversial, academic who upset many of his colleagues last year by mounting a withering attack on the ineffectiveness of education research in Britain, also speculates that economic competition from the Pacific Rim may force Britain and other European countries to slash public spending. South Korea devotes about 18 per cent of its GDP to public expenditure whereas Britain spends 43 per cent.
Lower public expenditure would result in lower taxes, giving parents greater potential to contribute directly to their children's schooling, as well as to higher education, he says.
"The rich would doubtless continue to pay for their children to attend private schools.
"The rather less affluent middle classes would be attracted by specialist schools and home schooling, and it is in these sectors that successful business and industry might become the new sponsors of education, just as rich individuals were once benefactors of the British public and grammar schools. "
Firms now provide some medical care, leisure facilities and cr ches for their employees, Professor Hargreaves points out.
"It is but a small step for them to intervene, as an investment, in primary and secondary education, whether in the form of schools, some specialising in the area of the business itself, or in the form of technological support or peripatetic tutors I Indeed, many employees will forgo a portion of their salaries for these educational benefits."
Professor Hargreaves says that in the highly diversified system that will evolve early next century the notion of a "standard" teacher who undergoes some generic initial training will disintegrate.
Teachers will enter the profession from a far wider range of backgrounds and for variable periods of service. A young group will teach for a few years and then move into another career or retain part-time teaching among their portfolio of occupations.
There will also be an older group who will leave another occupation as mature entrants to teaching on a part-time or full-time basis.
Furthermore, most teachers will work in partnership - not with national or local government, as their employees, but with parents, community leaders and business and industry - in more entrepreneurial and contractual capacities.
"The process of change for the teaching profession between 1990 and 2020 will be very painful for most of the existing teaching force," he concludes.
"But pioneers will not be in short supply. Enterprise will be rewarded and leaders will emerge at all levels among teachers, heads, policy-makers and politicians - through what will be seen as the most radical educational change since the introduction of mass schooling in the last quarter of the 19th century."
Professor Hargreaves's paper, "A Road to the Learning Society", is published in School Leadership and Management, Vol 17, No 1. Copies of the paper are available from Carfax Publishing, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 3UE, price Pounds 10.