SECONDARY schools across County Durham could become multi-purpose learning centres under new Government plans.

Durham County Council is to start drawing up proposals for a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to change the face of education.

The Government is planning a ten to 15-year programme to replace, improve and renew the country's ageing stock of secondary school buildings.

Ministers plan to start by making £2.2bn available in 2005/2006, although much of the money will come from private finance initiatives (PFI).

PFI, which involves public buildings being leased from private companies, has been criticised by unions and some Labour MPs for being more costly than traditional funding.

The Labour-run council hopes to use the funding to create facilities that would have teaching and learning at their core but also include a range of community, cultural, and other facilities.

Meeting in private yesterday, the cabinet backed the idea after hearing that the Government considered the condition of some secondary schools is now so bad that wholesale replacement is needed.

Council leader Ken Manton said the council would begin consulting schools, governors and the communities they served to review and, where appropriate, reorganise secondary education and prepare bids.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rationalise and improve potentially the entire secondary school stock in County Durham.

"The conditions and criteria which have to be met will require some radical decisions and detailed consultation but the outcome could be a new generation of schools unlike anything which currently exists.

"The end products could be all-encompassing multi-purpose learning centres, each with a specialism and with teaching at their core, but with a wide range of other community and out-of-hours uses.

"Their facilities could be shared between neighbouring schools and their sites could be used for the location of other services, such as council one-stop-shops, cultural facilities like libraries, and even offices."

He said the criteria for considering bids would include levels of need and deprivation, the state of school buildings, the potential to raise educational standards and the "readiness to deliver radical changes in provision".

An Audit Commission report published this year said the first schools built under PFI were worse than those built using traditional methods of funding.