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Surplus places to vanish in capital

Cross--border co-operation will be vital as London prepares to tackle a shortage of places in its secondary schools. Bibi Berki reports.

LONDON'S education authorities - urged for the past decade to get rid of surplus places - are now preparing for a secondary school shortfall.

A report by the outgoing Funding Agency for Schools predicts that the current London-wide surplus of 30,000 secondary school places is set to dwindle to a mere 470 by 2005 - a total so low that many parents would be denied any choice of school.

The report, based on predictions from all 33 London boroughs, forecasts that the capital will see a 13 per cent increase in the 11 to 16 age group between 1998 and 2005, when it will reach a total of 378,860. As a result some boroughs will have to embark on a costly school-building programme.

FAS chief executive Robert Lanwarne said: "If the numbers materialise as we set out, then you have got a complete match for supply and demand. But that's across London and in planning terms is not appropriate.

"You can't expect, for example, if a child is living in Croydon to travel across to Camden because there are surplus places in Camden," said Mr Lanwarne.

He added that the report was the first time a London-wide study of predicted places had been presented and it had to be used by the boroughs to anticipate the shortfall.The answer, he said, was in cross-border co-operation.

According to the report, a number of authorities have already expanded existing schools. In other areas planning authorities have responded to the forecast growth with proposals for new schools.

Proposals for new schools exist in Hillingdon, Wandsworth, Enfield, Newham, Waltham Forest, Redbridge and Haringey.

The report also suggests that boroughs "reconsider the organisation of the school year and day, with a view to maximising the use of resources available for education".

The Association of London Government, which co-produced the report, said local authorities needed more capital resources to prepare for the rise in secondary school pupils.

Chris Waterman, the ALG's education and arts policy officer and co-chair of the report's steering group, said the long-term study would give boroughs the chance to avert future problems. Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee, said: "All authorities in London are running out of places fast.

"What is happening is an unprecedented and exceptional growth of the population which has thrown out all the calculations of authorities completely."

He said that economic prosperity was mainly responsible for the rise in numbers. His own authority, Newham, must re-open a school closed in September to house an overflow of 240 11-year-olds. "The problem is the Government at the moment doesn't release the money until we have run out of places and it takes three years to build a secondary school," Mr Lane said.

Local authority expert Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, said a building programme for new schools and hospitals was vital because of the steepness of the predicted population rise in the capital.

"I don't think the Department for Education and Employment or the boroughs have really turned their attention to this," he said.

Planning Secondary School Places in London 1998-2005 is available from the Funding Agency for Schools (tel 01904 661603)

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