County cuts to hit over 60 schools

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ONE OF the biggest school reorganisations in Britain was approved by Warwickshire County Council last night. The county is to cut surplus places by closing or merging 65 schools, with the future of two other schools - which already have a joint governing body - hanging on further consultation.

The exercise is bound to be followed by similar operations in other areas after a ministerial warning in June that local authorities would no longer be allowed to run schools that were not viable.

Six of the Warwickshire schools have already voted to opt out to avoid closure or reorganisation, and a further two are to hold ballots this month. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, must decide whether to allow them to go ahead.

Mrs Shephard will also be faced with appeals for support from other campaigners against the proposals. The Government has promised not to allow schools to opt out in the face of 'well founded' closure plans, but in the past it has disregarded the wishes of local authorities.

Warwickshire's plans have taken a year to finalise, and have had to be scaled down more than once because of parental opposition. If Mrs Shephard approves them they will be completed by September 1996.

The county says its pupil numbers have dropped by 20 per cent in 15 years and that surplus places are costing it pounds 4m per year. Last October, 93 closures or mergers were proposed but in June this year the number was reduced to 84 before the current figure was reached last month. Sixty-six schools will be closed or merged with others less than a mile away.

At the same time it plans to remove more than 20 middle schools, which cater for pupils aged between 8 and 12, and to make all pupils transfer to secondary school at the age of 11.

Warwickshire has a number of small primary schools with fewer than 100 pupils. The local authority says that a reorganisation to eliminate many of them is the only way to raise the pounds 36m needed to bring its other schools up to government standards.

The council has received more than 8,700 letters and proposals and has attended some 300 meetings since the plan was launched last autumn. One-third of its proposals have been changed and four areas have won a further period of consultation. John Airey, chairman of education, said the changes would allow capital investments of up to pounds 29m to be made: 'Practicalities, as well as duty, demand that we invest the education budget money as best we can so that, for example, we have buildings fit for the purpose of teaching children into the 21st century.'

Opposition groups on the Labour-controlled council do not believe the changes will save as much money as has been claimed.

George Cowcher, leader of the Liberal Democrat group, said the local authority had exaggerated the need for the changes. 'We haven't got a large number of rural schools and we haven't got a large number of surplus places. Rural and small schools are being closed purely for financial reasons.'

Among the villages which face losing their primary school are Newbold on Stour and Priors Marston. The 33 pupils of Priors Marston Church of England First School will have to travel at least two miles to school from 1996. The headteacher, Carol Hillman, said numbers had dropped because parents had taken their children elsewhere when they heard of the closure plans. A new school is to be built at nearby Napton on the Hill. 'We can't understand how this decision was made,' she said. 'There is at least pounds 400,000 difference between extending this school and building a new one elsewhere.'

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