Pledge of future of village schools

STEVE DOWNES Education chiefs last night vowed to protect East Anglia's small schools as new figures showed a surge in the number of empty places in classrooms.

STEVE DOWNES

By STEVE DOWNES, Education correspondent

Xref leader

Education chiefs last night vowed to protect East Anglia's small schools as new figures showed a surge in the number of empty places in classrooms.

Surplus places in schools in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire jumped by about 10pc to nearly 35,000 last year - the equivalent of 140 average-sized primaries or 35 high schools standing empty.

The increase has prompted fears that the region's network of small schools could be under threat, as they are particularly vulnerable to even small shifts in pupil numbers.

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But the three counties promised to safeguard the schools, which they said played a “very important role in their community”.

And they said increased birth rates and predicted population growth in East Anglia could combine to slash the number of surplus places in the next few years.

The rise is reflected across the country, with the falling birth rate driving a 100,000 increase in surplus places since 1999 to 758,000 last year - the highest in almost a decade.

Of the schools with surplus places in East Anglia, 158 have more than 25pc spaces - with some having more than half of their school standing empty.

The highest in 2006, with 67pc surplus places, was Woodton Primary, near Bungay. But this year the number of pupils increased by more than 50pc from 16 to 25 - dramatically slashing the percentage.

In 2006 Norfolk had 9,468 surplus primary places - 13.17pc of the total places - and 3,100 at high school (6.22pc). In 2005, the totals were 8,336 and 3,161.

A Norfolk County Council spokesman said surplus places were “constantly under review”. If a school was expected to have an ongoing surplus, mobiles may be removed to reduce capacity.

She said: “All schools will experience some fluctuation in numbers from year to year and, if expressed in percentage terms, this can appear very big for a small school. Many small schools are playing a very important role in their community.”

She added: “Over the next decade the population of Norfolk is expected to increase. Management of surplus places needs to be done in the context of long-term perspectives, not as a reaction to short-term trends.”

In Suffolk, the total number of surplus places last year was 13,636, or 12pc of the total places. In 2005 it was 11,860.

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said the council was exploring “new ways of working”, including extended schools, federations - having one head teacher for two schools - and collaborations.

He said the number of surplus places may be “of value” to the controversial schools organisation review, which will see the whole of the county change from middle schools, where children transfer to high school at 12 or 13, to primaries, with a step up at 11.

The places would allow the review to “absorb additional pupils”.

The spokesman added: “Each school has its own unique set of circumstances. Many schools that have a high percentage of surplus places regularly achieve a high standard in educational achievement.”

Surplus places in Cambridgeshire last year stood at 5,757 in primaries (11.9pc of the total places) and 2,757 in secondaries (7.7pc).

The county council manages the situation by amalgamating infant and junior schools where possible and removing mobile classrooms.