Surplus places doubts voiced

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Assembly unhappy with how numbers of empty school desks are being calculated. Nicola Porter reports

Data on surplus school places could be off the mark and should carry a health warning, civil servants warned this week.

The Assembly's department for training and education (DTE) is unhappy over the way unfilled pupil places are calculated by local authorities and wants an overhaul of the present system.

The growing number of empty desks in both primary and secondary schools has led to school closure fears across Wales - especially in rural areas.

School reorganisation is already underway in Carmarthenshire, with plans under development in Denbighshire, Cardiff and other local education authorities. Moves towards community-focused schools which provide other public services on-site, such as libraries and health care, have been encouraged as a way of sustaining rural schools.

But Lyn Summers, from the DTE's schools' management team, admitted the figures could be flawed.

She told members of the Assembly's education and lifelong learning committee this week: "The question of surplus places needs to be looked at again and school capacities need to be reviewed. At present the figures should carry a health warning - we are not happy with them."

Janet Ryder, Plaid Cymru shadow eduction minister, had earlier raised concerns over the large number of unfilled places reported by LEAs. She acknowledged pupil numbers had fallen but said she was concerned they had been exaggerated. Speaking to the committee, she said headteachers had told her space assessed as four or five unfilled places could actually mean cupboard space in the classroom.

She added: "These figures will have a huge impact on schools. Are we satisfied they are right?"

On present predictions, there will be 100,448 surplus places in Welsh primary and secondary schools by January 2013, equating to nearly a fifth of provision.

Jane Davidson, education and lifelong learning minister, agreed a more accurate picture of surplus places was needed, but said there was still significant capacity to justify a move towards community schools.

The Assembly government has allocated pound;3 million a year to fund start-up costs and exemplar community school schemes. Schools cannot use their delegated budgets to run community activities but they can charge users or draw on funding from other public or voluntary bodies.

Lyn Summers addressed the education committee as part of a presentation on the Assembly government's "school of the future" proposals. She summed up a range of initiatives which will change the shape of Welsh schools in the coming years and should help to tackle social disadvantage.

These include moves towards community-focused schools, the development of the foundation phase for ages three to seven, Welsh-language developments, 14-19 curriculum reform and the school buildings programme.

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