Schools plan classroom timeshare

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A council is so short of school places it is considering splitting the school day into two and sending children to lessons in shifts.

Early shift pupils in Enfield, north London, would start lessons at 7.45am, while those on the late shift would not leave school until 7.45pm.

The scheme, one of a range of options being considered by the authority to counter a looming shortfall of hundreds of secondary places, would create a logistical nightmare for parents, who could be forced to drop off and collect primary and secondary-age children at different times. Meanwhile, late-shift pupils would end up walking home well after nightfall in winter.

The scheme is already being challenged by governors and heads. One primary school parent governor said: "The mind boggles at the logistics, let alone the difficulties it would make for the teaching staff and parents.

"Would there be teams of cleaners whizzing round the school between sessions, as happens with charter flights?"

Enfield is not alone among London boroughs and other urban authorities in facing a places shortage, although no other local education authority is understood to have formally considered a shift system.

Its proposals will raise fresh concerns over how best to manage schools admissions, which were widely deregulated under the Conservative government in the name of offering parents a choice of schools.

Enfield's schools are oversubscribed partly because many children attend from outside the borough. A recent Audit Commission survey found that one in five parents is denied their first choice of school, rising to one in two in London.

Enfield LEA's suggestion is one of eight options out for consultation to schools and governors in the borough, to counter a projected shortfall of 200 places for children transferring to secondary school in September 1998, worsening to 400 places by 1999.

The authority insists it has no money to provide new school buildings to accommodate the extra pupils, and claims it has failed to win government approval for borrowing to cover the costs, because the bidding criteria involved are "too insensitive".

The places shortfall has come about through a combination of factors, the LEA says, including a rise in the number of school-age children in the borough and the increasing numbers of pupils coming to its secondary schools from neighbouring authorities.

The proposed shift system, which is based on a model operating in some parts of Canada and the US, would allow the authority to double the number of pupils educated in the same building, the consultation document says.

By holding two sessions, starting at 7.45am and 2pm, schools would also remove the responsibility for providing lunches for pupils.

Other options for accommodating more pupils, without adding buildings, include increasing the numbers of children per class over the agreed number, or farming out sixth-form provision to colleges or alternative rented buildings.

Helen Osman, a parent governor at Grange Park Primary School whose nine- year-old daughter, Nicola, is due to move to secondary school in two years' time, said any further enlargement of class sizes risked damaging children's education, while a shift system would cause logistical chaos for families.

Councillor Achilles Georgiou, chair of Enfield's education committee, said the authority had taken a responsible attitude to planning places but had suffered through government refusal to grant permission to borrow cash for building.