Half full,or half empty?

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
Every council leader and and director of education - perhaps even every schoolchild - knows that trying to close a school is a thankless and bruising business. The Accounts Commission seems to appreciate that too (page five); indeed, perhaps being led by a former council chief executive has given the spending watchdog a keener awareness of the problems. But at what point does its guideline figure that a school should operate at 60 per cent capacity or above cease to make sense? Or, to put it another way, when do we know whether best value is secured by what seems an arbitrary target? Why not accept that value for money can be achieved by schools that are 50 per cent or 40 per cent full?

Although the Commission may be irritated that councils like Glasgow and Inverclyde have been somewhat tardy in matching school places to falling rolls, other schools in rural areas face different pressures. Perhaps in the countryside, best value is achieved by leaving schools in their communities rather than by diminishing communities through loss of their schools. It rather depends on what you mean by "value".

It is of some importance that, in developing targets such as 60 per cent occupancy, there is consistency among authorities. But, as the Accounts Commission itself reports, councils have discretion as to what they call an empty teaching space. Perhaps, if councils are to have their performance compared in these ways, the commission should now move on and issue new guidelines on whether a gym is a gym or a classroom.

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