TONY Blair aims to set a new course for education. He has rejected both the traditional left's belief that the state should provide all public education services and the free-marketeers' belief that they should all be handed over to the private sector.
His preferred solution is for a pragmatic mix of both public and private provision - his so-called "third way" - in which the private sector can be called upon to intervene and take over wherever, and whenever, existing services are failing.
Critics of this approach warn that the very future of state education is under threat - one of the pillars of the welfare state which represents one of the great legacies of the 20th century to 21st-century Britain.
Is this legacy being unpicked? How deeply engrained in our culture is the belief that education should be both funded and provided by the state - and the state alone? What can our history tell us about what might happen in future?
In the 19th century, Britain was noted for its resistance to government control of its schools.
Holland, Switzerland, France and the German countries had all established the foundations of their state systems by 1830 and most of the northern states of the United States followed soon after. But, in 1869, the British government was still providing only a third of school spending in England.
Thirty years after the beginning of systematic state support for education (with small grants to help build elementary schools in 1833) and the establishment of a committee of the Privy Council to oversee the sector, spending was still less than half that of Prussia.
State secondary education simply did not exist until 1902 - a century after its equivalents in Germany and France.
The consequence of this lack of involvement is still a matter for hot debate. Andy Green, professor of lifelong learning at London University's institute of education, claims that Edwardian England found itself 50 years behind leading rivals in establishing an integrated system of mass schooling.
On the other side of the argument, Professor James Tooley of Newcastle University, quotes figures indicating attendance and literacy rates of more than 90 per cent before 1870. He blames the state for stifling the energy of the church-based voluntary movements which, by 1900, were running more than two-thirds of elementary schools.
What is not in dispute is the breadth and sincerity of opposition to government-run schooling in 19th-century England.
Opinion ranged from the ruling class's suspicion of mass education's incendiary effect on the lower orders, Anglicans insisting that education was the prerogative of the established church, non-conformists worrying about a state system dominated by Anglicans, and 19th-century antecedents of James Tooley claiming state involvement would undermine private initiative.
Even among the working classes, supposed to be the beneficiaries of state-sponsored mass education, opposition was widespread. Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, had opposed the idea, radical titan William Cobbett was a tireless opponent, and even the Chartist leader William Lovett, famous for his support of educational causes, shied away.
"While we are anxious to see a general system of education adopted, we have no doubt of the impropriety of yielding such an important duty as the education of our children to any government. If ever knavery and hypocrisy succeed in establishing the centralising, state-moulding and knowledge-forcing systems in England, so assuredly will the people degenerate into passive submission to injustice," he wrote from Reading Gaol.
In 1870, when the state finally made a determined grab for power, the Forster Act nevertheless bypassed central control by setting up rate-aided local school boardsto plug gaps in elementary provision. Eight years earlier, the Revised Code had dramatically reduced teachers' autonomy by tying state grants to "payment by results", but the establishment of a ministry of education was still considered a
political impossibility. It was not until the 1880s and 1890s, with legislation to make elementary schooling compulsory and free, that the glimmerings of a new consensus began to appear.
England was struggling to maintain its lead in increasingly competitive international markets. Suffrage was broadening, if not yet universal. A comprehensive mass education system was needed and, if state intervention was required to achieve it, so be it.
In 1902, the Balfour Education Act created local education authorities, inaugurated state involvement in the secondary sector and gave rate aid to the voluntary schools. The foundations of the national examination system began to be put in place and, in 1918, the Fisher Education Act raised the school-leaving age to 14. National pay scales for teachers were introduced a year later.
By 1928, education spending had increased to 2.2 per cent of the national income, double that of before the First World War.
The Second World War brought the next great step. The Butler Education Act created the first Ministry of Education, ended all fee-paying in maintained schools, and set up new centrally-ordained structures for the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. Over the next few decades, the new ministers of education and, at a local level, council chairs of education, became accustomed to wide-ranging powers. The tussle over the future of grammar schools during the 1960s and 1970s was indicative: with central governments demanding, and most local authorities delivering, the wholesale conversion of the country to a comprehensive system. State power reached such proportions that there was serious debate on the left about the complete elimination of the private sector in education.
We have since seen a dramatic change in the prevailing rhetoric. The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 brought talk of the rolling back of the state and of voucher schemes, threatening the effective privatisation of the state sector. In 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced the national curriculum, local management of schools, grant-maintained schools, and open enrolment - all radically curtailing councils' powers to control schools in their areas.
Moves to force councils to tender out services to private contractors began to impinge on the education sector. In the 1990s, surviving the accession to power of John Major and New Labour, the trend appeared to continue: city technology colleges, education action zones and, latterly, the take-over of council services by private companies brought the private sector into the very heart of the state system.
So, have we seen the back of the golden age of state education? Are we returning to the principles of voluntarism that so powerfully influenced English attitudes in the 19th century?
Care is needed here. The 1980s and 1990s did not, in fact, see a contraction of central government control in education. The introduction of the national curriculum, testing, the OFSTED regime, the literacy and numeracy hours, have actually given unprecedented power to the central state to control what goes on in the classroom.
The work of education action zones and private-sector contractors is all approved and closely monitored in Whitehall. Instead, what we appear to be witnessing is an increasing willingness by the state to use the private sector as an instrument of its control.
Architects of the state education system may be turning in their graves at the thought of a
private company taking over Kings' Manor school in Surrey, but those "state-moulding and knowledge-forcing systems" that William Lovett so dreaded appear to be in rude health as we enter the 21st century.