Doubts cast over figures for surplus places

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The Independent Online
GOVERNMENT efforts to force local authorities to cut surplus school places may have been based on inaccurate figures, senior education officials believe, writes Fran Abrams.

The Department for Education launched a drive to eliminate spare capacity in June this year, based on an estimate from 1991 that schools have 1.3 million empty desks.

However, the head of the new Funding Authority for Schools, Sir Christopher Benson, said this week that the real number could be much lower. In the 47 areas where the authority has a role - about half the authorities in Britain - there were just 200,000 spare secondary school places, he said.

The surplus was equivalent to 14 per cent of the total number of places, he said, but an increase in the birth-rate was about to boost the number of pupils moving to secondary schools.

By the end of the century just 7 per cent of places are expected to be unoccupied. This figure is thought to be an adequate level to allow for flexibility and parental choice.

Sir Christopher said: 'Over the past few years, various figures have been bandied about, generally suggesting that there are a million or upwards surplus places in the system. The agency's tentative conclusion is that . . . it may be less of an issue than has previously been thought.'

He added that in up to one third of the areas in which the FAS operates - where more than 10 per cent of pupils are in opted-out schools - there would be a need for more school places before 2,000. In Hillingdon and Sutton, in outer London, plans for an expansion of the secondary school places are under way.

In some areas there is still a major surplus which must be addressed. Warwickshire has 16,000 spare places amounting to between 15 and 19 per cent of the total, which it hopes to reduce by one third through its current reorganisation. Others have already carried out reorganisations to reduce their spare capacity. Humberside completed a major exercise a year ago, and Surrey has also made changes in its primary schools.

Wherever such proposals are put forward, an extra dimension is now added by the possibility of schools opting out to avoid closure and thereby disrupting their local authorities' plans. In an increasing number of cases, both local authority plans and applications for grant maintained status will arrive simultaneously on the desk of Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, for a final decision on the way forward.