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Purge on primaries

Glasgow may close up to 40 schools as spending watchdog gets tough on surplus places

FORTY primaries in Glasgow face closure if the city bites the bullet and brings schools into line with average rolls across the country.

The Accounts Commission, the Government spending watchdog, has again warned councils to step up closure programmes after criticising slow progress in the past two years. Councils counter that they have bitten into surplus places substantially in recent months with the help of the Government's pound;15 million "spend to save" scheme.

Primaries in Glasgow remain the commission's number one target. The city has recently shown a steely political determination to press ahead with a radical rationalisation and will have succeeded in closing nine secondaries by the end of this session, a feat many said was impossible.

Attention, after the May elections, is almost certain to focus on the primary sector. If occupancy levels were to be on a par with secondaries up to 80 schools would be at risk. A more realistic figure is likely to be between 35 and 40 out of 202, 20 per cent of the total.

Councillors have already agreed that to be viable city primaries should have rolls of at least 462, or two classes at each stage. One school this session had only three pupils entering primary 1.

The Accounts Commission notes that across Scotland 47 primaries and eight secondaries have closed in the five years up to 1997-98. Yet Bob Black, controller of audit, insists councils still need to tackle the long-running problem of under-occupied schools.

In 1997-98, there was no further improvement in the secondary sector and only a marginal difference among primaries, according to the commission.

In Argyll and Bute, Glasgow, Shetland and the Western Isles, more than half of all primary schools had 40 per cent or more of their places empty. In Glasgow, Orkney and the Western Isles, more than half of secondaries were under-occupied, although Glasgow says the figures are out of date.

Argyll, the authority with the highest percentage of spare primary places, maintains it is doing everything it can to reduce capacity. Joe McGeer, head of resource management, said the council had cut 675 places in two years and has agreement to slash another 171.

Six primaries have closed and a further three are scheduled to disappear. "In three years we have eliminated half the spare places in primary. If we eliminate another 200-300 that will be it. We are really not that far away from doing what we can do as a council," Mr McGeer maintains.

He said: "It has been hard on the people in local areas and it has been the only issue in our council which has created sharp division."

Argyll retains a large number of spare places at remote and island schools, such as those on Coll and Colonsay, but can do nothing about them. The commission must take the reality of rural life into consideration, Mr McGeer said.

Expansion of pre-five places has also cut spare capacity with 19 new nursery units established in primary schools.

Accounts Commission figures show that in 1997-98 Argyll cut the percentage of primaries which are more than 60 per cent empty from 31.8 per cent to 27.9 per cent.

Across Scotland, 182 primaries or 7.9 per cent were classified as being more than 60 per cent empty at the end of last session. Five years ago the figure was 216.

Among secondaries, 23 schools or 5.8 per cent were more than 60 per cent empty. Five years ago, 32 schools were in that category.

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