WHILE the faint-hearted here in the UK continue to rail against the privatisation of education, the case for it continues to be made in some very unlikely places.
A high-level international conference on the subject was recently held in Beijing, sponsored by the People's Congress.
Whatever China's record on human rights, the country is in the vanguard of developments as far as private education is concerned. I wish that those timid souls here could take note of the pragmatic attitude of the Chinese on this issue.
The Vice Chair of the People's Congress, Xu Jialu, addressed the conference, stressing how China needed to build on its "great traditions" in private education - dating back to Confucius 2,500 years ago - to make sure that education is made "attractive for international investment". There are already 35,000 private pre-schools, 5,500 private elementary, middle and high schools, and a staggering 1,200 universities - well over half the total in China.
But it is not just investment in private schools which is "sincerely welcomed" by the People's Congress. State schools are also being privatised. A dozen schools in Beijing, one in Xi'an, 20 in Shanghai and many more in other coastal cities have now been contracted out to the private sector.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the contractual arrangement is how far these are genuine privatisations. Teachers are gradually transferred to the private sector, so that by the end of three years the contractor is the employer of all teachers in the school. This is in sharp contrast to what happens in the UK or United States, where employment of teachers is still in the hands of local education authorities under detailed national regulations.
The private schools in China are contracted to provide free places for a certain number of pupils from the surrounding zone, receiving a per capita funding for these pupils. But after that, the schools can be filled with fee-paying students. This model is well worth our attention, since it offers a way around the problem of bringing much-needed extra funding into schools.
When the Oratory School in west London - where Tony Blair sends his sons - wanted to charge a supplement to all parents to make up for a shortfall, it met with a public outcry. Part of the problem was that not all parents might be able to afford it.
The Chinese model suggests a possible solution: provide an entitlement education in an excellent school for local children, but allow others who want to come from further afield to pay for what they find desirable, and, in Mr Blair's case, could clearly afford.
I know of one outstanding city technology college which now takes parents who would otherwise have sent their children to expensive independent schools.
How much more just it would be if the CTC could have reserved places for the needy in the zone on the Chinese model.
Why is the Chinese government so attracted to the privatisation of education? Ma Shuping, deputy director of education of the Beijing Municipality, spoke on four major themes, each of which ought to resonate with policy-makers here.
Privatisation, he said, would help "to make up for a lack of government funds", because the government simply could not cater for educational demand and promote innovation. It was recognised that the private sector was much better at this than the state. In addition, it could also "ease unemployment" as the private sector could respond more promptlywith training for business and industry".
In addition, it would also "help close the gap between the rich and poor", because in China, as in many other countries including the UK, public educational expenditure is geared disproportionately to higher-income groups and to higher education.
But surely the Chinese haven't been able to overcome all ideological objections? What about the issue of for-profit education - which so bothers liberals here?Again, the Chinese reaction is pragmatic. A key speaker from the People's Congress noted that the wording of the law is clear - schools must not be 'for the purpose of making a profit'. But the wording of the law is also rather cleverly ambiguous.
Since private schools are actually "for the purpose of education" they escape the strictures of the law against profit. It's a semantic let-out which would dazzle even New Labour.
Only once during the conference did appearance seem to outstrip reality. In one private school we visited as part of the proceedings, we were shown round the premises by some pupils. There was an attractive fountain and pond in the grounds, with two ducks swimming merrily. One 10-year-old, noting our approval, told us: 'We brought the ducks in especially for you. When you are gone we will eat them. We Chinese are very efficient."
Professor James Tooley's new book, Reclaiming Education, is published next month by Cassell.