HC Deb 21 March 1995 vol 257 cc132-3
6. Mr. Thurnham

To ask the Secretary of State for Education what is the cost of surplus places in local authority schools; and if she will make a statement. [13247]

Mrs. Gillian Shephard

We estimate that the direct costs of maintaining surplus places in local authority schools is some £225 million. Of course, not all those places are in practice removable.

Mr. Thurnham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that rising pupil numbers may fill some of those spaces, but that that is no excuse for failing to improve teaching standards in unpopular schools or closing them altogether?

Mrs. Shephard

Given that the Audit Commission has pointed out the savings to be made from sensible rationalisation, I hope that all authorities will look carefully at the position in their area. If they make savings, that will obviously enable them to take the measures that my hon. Friend has identified. Nothing could be more important than raising standards.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Does the Secretary of State not realise that the biggest disincentive to local authorities to remove surplus places has come from the Government giving schools the opportunity to opt out of local education authorities? Does she realise that removing surplus places takes at least two years and is certainly no answer to the funding crisis that our schools face now?

Mrs. Shephard

The first point is that high priority is given in capital funding to LEA bids for cost-effective rationalisation proposals. The second point relates to GM schools. We do not normally approve proposals for self-governing status drawn up in response to a threat of closure, but we reserve the right to approve GM status for such schools when we are not persuaded by the LEA's case and the school is viable, effective and popular.

Mr. McLoughlin

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in Derbyshire there are more than 17,000 surplus places? Can she confirm that every LEA this year had an increase in the amount of money that it could spend? Therefore, if there is any cash reduction to schools, it is simply because the LEA has changed its priorities.

Mrs. Shephard

Yes, this year's settlement provides for an increase for all authorities. It should be viewed in the context of generous settlements in the past few years and lower than expected inflation. It is certainly the case that if Derbyshire had been prepared to tackle the large number of surplus places in the past, it would not have had the problems that it claims to have now.

Forward to