Page last updated at 12:40 GMT, Monday, 4 June 2007 13:40 UK

Empty school places reach 758,000

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Going to school
There are almost 100,000 more surplus primary places than in 1999

The number of surplus school places in England has risen to 758,000 - the highest level since 1998.

This is the equivalent of more than 2,000 average-sized primary and 250 secondary schools lying empty.

The government says falling pupil numbers are a chance for local authorities to "completely reassess how they organise their schools".

The empty places have been created by a declining birth rate, a shifting population and parental choice.

While there has been political debate about the pressure on over-subscribed schools, the overall number of empty desks has continued to climb.

Birth rate

These figures show that while parents are struggling to get children into the most desirable schools there is a growing surplus in the overall supply of places.

graph showing trend in surplus places

This means that there are now hundreds of schools around the country with surpluses above 25% - and the government has previously warned that schools with this many empty places were not an effective use of funding.

In Birmingham there are 38 primary schools which have more than 25% surplus, in Durham there are 56, in Norfolk there are 60 and in Lancashire there are 90 such schools. Southampton has five secondary schools with surpluses above this threshold.

The Department for Education and Skills says local authorities can use new powers over opening and closing schools "as a rare opportunity to completely reassess how they organise and divide their schools".

"Local authorities should be seeking to source new schools and expand their best schools to provide choice for parents by offering the type of education they want in the locations they want it, and removing surplus from less popular schools."

The figures from the DfES show that in 2006 there were 757,623 surplus places - up by 8% since 2001.

This has been driven by a decline in the birth rate since 1990 - and by choice in the admissions process, with parents looking further afield for places and unpopular schools facing falling rolls.

Projections from the DfES show that this surplus is likely to grow even greater - with a forecast of a further fall of 47,000 primary pupils between 2006 and 2008, equivalent to a further 200 empty schools.

By 2010, a drop of a further 500,000 primary pupils is expected - equivalent to 2,000 more empty primary schools.

The Conservative Party, in rejecting grammar schools, is arguing for a greater supply of places - including more schools set up by parents, in the manner of the charter schools in the United States.

And the government has also repeated its commitment to making it easier for groups of parents or other community organisations to create new schools where there is demand.

Parents campaigning over a disputed admissions system in Brighton argued for "greater capacity in the system" as the answer to pressure on places.

School closure

But the figures show that the bottleneck in demand for the most sought-after schools is against a backdrop in which many schools could face closure because of a lack of pupils. It is about the right type of school place, rather than about volume.

The majority of empty places are in primary schools - 513,512 - which means that 12% of the total places available have not been taken. There are now almost 100,000 more empty places than in 1999.

In secondary schools, the surplus is 244,111 which represents about 7% of places - a figure that has remained relatively stable.

But the demographic change behind the primary surplus is now feeding into secondary schools.

So while the number of empty secondary places had been steadily declining the trend has now turned upwards.

In recent years, the peak in empty places was in 1994, when there were more than one million in the school system.

Apart from the financial cost of empty places it raises the threat of school closures, particularly in rural areas where there might already be small schools vulnerable to a drop in pupil numbers.

Between 2000 and 2004, more than 1,200 schools were closed or amalgamated with other schools.

There are wide regional variations - with some areas with much higher surpluses. Knowsley has 20% of primary places empty and Hammersmith and Fulham has 18% empty secondary places.

And the empty school places figures reveal the speed with which populations can migrate - with schools left behind after families have moved out.

Official figures show the loss of population from urban northern areas. In Liverpool, between 1993 and 2002, the primary school population fell by almost a quarter.

In Rochdale, there are primary schools with up to 59% and 39% empty places, as people have left the estates where the schools are situated.

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