Who best supplies the poor with access to education: the state, the private sector, or - heaven forbid - a Blairite compromise?
Historically, it was the private sector that educated the masses. By 1891, there were 12,000 church primary schools in England and Wales but only 3,000 state or board schools. All charged fees, and all provided the poor with free places. Yet, the board schools were half empty.
The ordinary parent, for similar reasons as now, preferred the church schools - but Parliament did not. The Liberal party distrusted the church as "the Tory party at prayer"; yet, it was actually the Tories who, between 1891 and 1902, nationalised the church schools.
The Tories wanted them to teach military drill on the Prussian model, but the church schools refused on Christian grounds, so the Tories undercut them - by abolishing all fees for the state's board schools. To encourage further the transfer of children, the Tories paid for the "free" board schools by doubling the domestic rates. Faced with falling rolls, the church schools applied for nationalisation.
Across the developing world, we still see competition between the private and state sectors for the children of the poor, which today the private schools often win, even though they charge fees. India's 1999 Public Report On Basic Education (PROBE), which is on the web, reveals the sad picture.
Because state teachers in India are appointed for life, they do no work.
When PROBE's inspectors visited schools they found that "only in 53 per cent was there any teaching activity".
Not teaching "has become a way of life in the profession", yet the private schools display "feverish classroom activity". Professor James Tooley of the University of Newcastle has shown that such privatepublic disparities are seen over much of Asia and Africa.
The developing country that best provides access to education is, I believe, Belize, an ex-British colony which is primarily a black Caribbean community. It boasts the highest standards of literacy, numeracy and school attendance in the region and its schools, though largely funded by the state, are run by the private sector.
During the first half of the 19th century, church and state schools competed in Belize but, in 1855, recognising the superior performance of the church schools, the state closed its own, transferring its money into subsidies.
Of the 230 or so primary schools in Belize today, just over 30 are run by the state. The others are run by Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and other private (some for-profit) bodies. The state pays 90 per cent of the schools' costs, and the children of the poor receive a free education, but because the schools compete against each other for pupils, and because they operate by market disciplines, they are excellent. And they charge rich parents what they will bear.
There is at least one example in Britain of an independent institution that, as a government partner, provides better access to high-quality education than its state-run equivalents, and that is the University of Buckingham.
Being in the market, Buckingham has pioneered cost-effective education, and it teaches a fourth, summer, term. Undergraduate degrees, therefore, last only two years, and overall living costs are only two-thirds those of state universities.
Total fees for undergraduate degrees are only pound;9,000 for qualified Britsh students, despite a studentstaff ratio of only 10 to one.
Around the world, as here, purely private systems exclude the poor, while universal state systems are generally underfunded and bureaucratic.
Stateprivate partnerships, however, like those of Buckingham or the Belize schools, provide better access to high-quality education than does either system alone. The Government has recognised this in its recent White Paper, which is increasing fees yet reintroducing grants to the state universities.
I make a prediction: the 1913 Act, which prohibits state schools from charging fees, will one day be revoked in favour of grants for the children of the poor. That will be New Labour's Third Way.
Terence Keeley is vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham