education chiefs are scratching their heads about what to do with empty classrooms at some of Southampton's biggest schools.

New figures reveal there are enough empty school places scattered around the city to fill an average-sized secondary. There will be 700 surplus places in 2006, with three schools already down around 25 per cent on capacity.

But bosses have vowed no school will close.

Instead, they hope to find alternative uses for the empty space and are launching a huge consultation to see what people want.

Changes in the way the council measures the number of places available in the city schools means a feared 1,300-place shortage has transformed into a hefty surplus.

The news emerges as the finishing touches are put to three new schools - adding hundreds of extra classroom places - due to open next year.

Schools worst hit are Millbrook Community School, which is 25 per cent down on a full roll with 574 pupils, and Weston Park Boys School, which has a similar shortage on a full roll with 680 students.

One of the three new schools, Woodlands Community School, will also have a significant surplus when it's gleaming new buildings open to pupils next year.

Moving to reassure worried parents, head of education policy Andrew Hind said the council's pupil number forecasts were "a little bit optimistic" but that was "not a reason to panic".

"They made a perfectly reasonable judgement on the evidence they had but with the benefit of hindsight it may be that there's a few too many places," he said.

"We will be looking to remove capacity from schools. There are a number of ways you can do that but we are exploring our options.

"It is highly unlikely closure would solve the problems we have got.

"To close a school means going from one side of the problem to the other. You would lose capacity, but then have to put some back."

Now, the council is trying to think of ways to make good use of the unexpected surfeit of classroom space.

Bosses hope to use some spare buildings at one or more of the schools to found a community facility or resource for other schools.

Ideas already on the table include a crche for local teachers' children, an adult education centre or an early years centre.

"We are looking for creative uses for one of the schools to develop a range of complementary facilities," said Mr Hind.

In a bid to take in as many ideas as possible, the city is quizzing local teachers and governors with a questionnaire before opening up the consultation to the public early next year.