John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, has agreed to meet a delegation from Newham council to hear their plea to build two new schools in the south of the borough, writes Lesley Gerard.

Newham's education stategy for the next century was thrown into disarray after Stratford school opted out.

The plan had been to close Stratford, although the school did not have the worst rolls and its exam results were average within the borough for the time.

But the authority argued that is should be closed because it was located in the middle of Newham and more schools were needed in the South. Also, as a split-site school, it was more costly to run.

The council wanted to develop two new schools in Custom House and Beckton, where the population is increasing and new housing is built.

When Stratford became grant-maintained the borough was left with 1,200 surplus places - too many to qualify for capital funding to build schools.

On Wednesday, John Isted, Labour leader of the council, Ian Harrison, director of education, and David Tate representing the sugar giant Tate and Lyle, which manufactures in the Royal Docks, will lobby Mr Gummer and Eric Forth, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, to win support for the new schools.

Newham, which has the highest birth rate in Britain, insists it will face a major shortage of secondary places in the south by 2000.

It argues that the two secondary schools which traditionally take children from this area - Brampton Manor, East Ham, and Woodside, Plaistow - pose major maintenance problems.

Council officers estimate it will cost pounds 18m to repair both buildings to give them a 20-year life-span. The cost of building two new schools would be pounds 20m.

Mr Isted said: 'Children from south of the A13, which is the fastest growing part of the borough, have to cross a busy road which is practically a motorway.

'Either Woodside of Brampton Manor would have to close. 'The plan would be to move children from Manor school and Woodside to the new schools.'

'We will not be allowed to borrow the funds until we have a shortage of school places, although we know that by the year 2000 that will be the case.

'When Stratford remained open it disrupted our planning into the next century. 'We will be asking John Gummer, who holds the purse strings, to relax the rules, so that we can build much-needed schools.'