More than 2,100 primary schools in England face the threat of closure or merger because of soaring numbers of surplus places.
On average, more than one in 10 seats in primary classes was empty last year, new government figures suggest. They show that there were 482,078 surplus primary places, an increase of 33,041 since 2001.
The growth of surplus places has been linked to a drop in birth rates. And the Government is now setting up a working group to help local authorities "explore the opportunities" for the schools, which include closure, merger or the introduction of new services, such as classes for parents.
David Miliband, minister for school standards, has advised councils to target the 2,146 schools in England which have 25 per cent or more empty places. Those which were performing badly should be the first to be considered for closure, he suggested. Eleven primaries in South Tyneside, where his constituency is, are due for closure "In some cases it is sensible to propose the closure and amalgamation of schools," Mr Miliband said. "In others, surplus places can provide opportunities for extended schools providing a range of other services alongside schooling and for wider community use of school premises."
In secondary schools, the number of surplus places has fallen by 19,342 since 2001 to 231,391. However, 270 secondary schools are more than a quarter empty.
Local authorities with the highest number of empty primary places include Durham, where 69 primaries have too many spaces, according to government criteria.
Like many other authorities, Durham is carrying out a review of its primary schools. However, Keith Mitchell, education director, said there would not be large-scale school closures.
Around 18 per cent of primary places in Durham are empty - 5 per cent more than the authority considers ideal. "A surplus of 13 per cent gives us the flexibility to cope with several factors, including parental preference, sudden fluctuations in the birth rate and population," said Mr Mitchell.
"It also recognises the fact that as a rural county comprising mainly small settlements rather than large towns, there is a need to keep schools open to minimise pupils' travelling time."
The National Union of Teachers said some councils might be too hasty in their moves to close primary schools. Doug McAvoy, general secretary, said:
"There is a danger, when there is a falling population, of a knee-jerk response which results in schools being closed and then opened again in five years' time."
A survey of local authorities by The TES last week suggested that hundreds of teaching jobs would be lost this year because of funding cuts caused by falling pupil numbers.
The Department for Education and Skills predicts that schools will lose more than 600,000 pupils between 2001 and 2016. If pupil-teacher ratios remain constant, this would mean a decrease in teacher numbers of around 41,000.
Chris Davis, chair of the National Primary Headteachers' Association and head of Queniborough primary in Leicestershire, said he hoped authorities would "mothball classrooms rather than schools".
"We would like to see falling rolls used as a way to decrease class sizes," he said.
Primary schools with surplus places
North Yorkshire 34
Local authorities are listed alongside the number of their primary schools where more than a quarter of places are surplus.