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Too little too late as empty primary desks pile up

As pupil numbers continue to decline, Nic Barnard looks at the contrasting ways in which two local authorities are coping

With 4,000 spare primary places costing more than pound;2 million to maintain, Gloucestershire stands as a warning to authorities that fail to plan early.

In this rural authority with many small village schools, it is estimated that there will be 7,000 empty primary desks by 2006 - equivalent to 35 primary schools. Schools in three areas in the county are already more than a quarter empty.

The Audit Commission in the mid-1990s estimated the cost of maintaining spare places at pound;300 each in premises costs alone. In Gloucestershire, that would mean a wasted pound;2.1m in primaries alone.

"Clearly that can't be allowed to continue," says head of education planning Keith Maclennan.

The decline has yet to affect secondary schools but more than 3,000 spare places are expected by 2009. New housing could make an impact, but many proposed developments have yet to get planning permission. Mr Maclennan says signs point to an "inexorable decline" in numbers.

But the LEA is only now starting to tackle the problem - not quickly enough according to primary heads. A review is to begin in mid 2004 and will take three years to complete.

The Office for Standards in Education last year found serious weaknesses in the authority, caused by 15 years without political leadership. Among inspectors' criticisms was a lack of strategy in its planning of places.

Steve Savory, head of Bishop's Cleeve primary and chair of Gloucestershire Association of Primary Heads, said colleagues were only alerted to the problem six months ago.

Bishop's Cleeve school has gone from three-form entry to two. Several staff have been made redundant. "We're losing funding and managing a deficit budget as a result," Mr Savory says. "We've had to amalgamate classes of 21 and 22 into classes of 34 - in this area, that's considered almost an obscene number."

The review will have to tackle the controversial issue of small rural primaries. Mr Savory fears they are being subsidised at the expense of urban schools which already prop up the league tables and are losing pupils - ironically to the same rural primaries. "They're all being bussed out.

Clearly these are not village amenities, it's just parental preference."

Mr Maclennan says the role schools play in their communities will be considered. "It's not just a question of setting a threshold (for numbers).

You have to take into account the impact on the community if it closed. You can't just go round shutting doors."

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