Page last updated at 00:30 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Schools in England 'have 793,000 empty places'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News

More than 400 secondary schools are a quarter empty

There are 793,000 empty places in England's schools, official figures reveal.

This comes as the Conservatives are proposing more parental choice by creating an additional 220,000 school places.

The schools minister challenged the Conservatives to say how such additional places would be funded.

The Conservatives say "there will be no extra revenue cost as we will be using a per pupil funding formula".

'Million empty places'

A Labour spokesman says that adding an extra 220,000 places would mean paying for more than one million surplus places in the school system.

In response, a Conservative spokesman pointed to the level of surpluses as an indication of parental dissatisfaction with the quality of the schools available.

"When one in six parents don't get their first choice of school there is clearly a shortage of good school places," he said.

These latest figures show the extent of empty places in schools in January 2009 - created by demographic trends and parents sending their children elsewhere.

They show that in secondary schools this number of surplus places now stands at 310,000, out of a total of 3.4 million.

In more than 400 secondary schools more than a quarter of places are left empty.

In primary schools, the figures show 483,000 surplus places - out of a total of 4.2 million.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has sought to reduce such surpluses - saying that a high level of empty school places is a "poor use of resources".

Political battle

But the latest figures come against the political battle over extending school choice.

The Conservatives want to make it easier for parents to create new schools - as a way of giving more choice and raising standards.

But Labour has challenged them over the funding of such an expansion at a time of constrained public spending.

It says opening new schools would mean additional teachers, equipment and running costs.

"They have no idea how they would pay for hundreds of new 'free market schools' with hundreds of thousands of surplus places, without big cuts to existing schools," says Schools Minister Vernon Coaker.

A Conservative spokesman said creating extra capacity would not mean more expense.

"There will be no extra revenue cost as we will be using a per pupil funding formula. If a parent moves from school 'x' to a new school 'y' the revenue spending is transferred. So there is no extra cost," the spokesman said.

"There will be a capital cost which will be funded from the Building Schools for the Future budget as we have said before. This means that the same amount of money will be spent on building schools but under our plans some of those buildings will be led by parent demand not government diktat."

The Conservatives have also attacked the government's record on the size of schools - saying that the number of very large schools has risen.

They say that the number of secondary schools has fallen by 10% since 1997 - and the number of very large schools, with more than 1,500 pupils, has risen from 136 to 294.

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