FEAR for the future of some of Cheshire's rural schools has been heightened following the publication of a draft strategy to deal with the county's education system.
Falling pupil numbers in the shire's classrooms during the next five years could lead to the closure of a string of under-used rural and urban schools.
Education chiefs at Cheshire County Council have published a draft School Organisation Plan which sets out how the availability of school places in Cheshire will meet the requirements of the population during 2003-2008.
Though the plan does not contain specific proposals for adding and removing places, it provides a commentary on dealing with places in primary, secondary and specials schools during the next five years.
Education chiefs say primary school numbers in Cheshire will fall by nearly 2,900 pupils between now and 2008.
To prepare, the local education authority wants to review under-used schools and merge them with neighbouring schools which can take the strain.
Consideration will also be given to the possibility of federating small rural schools, which could be run by just one overall headteacher and a governing body.
Education chiefs say their policy is to merge neighbouring schools if they are operating at less than three-quarters full.
Together with the draft plan is a set of tables which show how most Cheshire schools compare when it comes to places.
The research shows which schools are full due to their academic success and which have a large number of surplus places.
Figures for 2003 show there are currently 444 surplus places in Chester Rural North - which includes Waverton, Christleton, Tarvin, Kelsall, Elton and Saughall.
Schools in the area with surplus places include Elton Primary, with 148. This may be due to families removing their children from the school to ensure them a place at Helsby High School.
Other examples include Dutton St Peter's Primary with 49 surplus places, Saughall The Ridings Infant School (39) and Saughall The Thomas Wedge Junior (25), and Guilden Sutton Primary, which has 27 surplus places with a population of 49 pupils.
There are 136 surplus places in Chester Rural South, which includes Malpas, Tattenhall and Farndon.
Research also shows primary schools in greater Chester and Neston have an over-provision of surplus places.
Schools which could be in the firing line for mergers include Frod-sham Manor House Primary and Weaver Vale Primary, which both have more than 20% of surplus places.
Figures for this year show how St Clare's Primary, in Lache, has 178 surplus places; Dee Point Primary, Blacon, has 89; Cherry Grove Primary, Boughton, has 79; and Lache Primary has 243.
However, a merger between the two Lache schools would not be on the cards because St Clare's - which is currently home to 122 pupils - is a Catholic school and run by the Church.
In the secondary sector, pupil numbers are expected to rise gradually, peaking in 2004, and are forecast to fall back to the current level by 2008.
The analysis of need within the secondary sector and any opportunities to reduce surplus places at local school level will be explored.
The draft plan for 2003-2008 shows how there are surplus places at many Cheshire high schools, including Frodsham School (96), Blacon High (283), Kingsway High (218) and Queen's Park High (157).
But perhaps the biggest change could be to the county's special schools.
In line with changing times, education chiefs may soon be faced with the challenge of closing some of the county's special schools to educate special-needs pupils in mainstream classes.
A Cheshire County Council spokesman said: 'Special education is moving towards change.
'The local education authority recognises that for a small number of children there will always be a need for highly specialist provision, based on the needs of the individual pupil, but the overall direction is to educate children in the mainstream setting.
'This will require a review of special schools and special classes.'
He added: 'The draft School Organisation Plan for Cheshire 2003-2008 is a contextual document to help the education authority, schools, promoters, parents and local communities to understand the issues surrounding school places and to establish future demands.'
Earlier this year a spokesman said: 'The council has a duty to organise education as efficiently and economically as possible.'
* To view the draft School Organisation Plan for Cheshire, log on to www.cheshire.gov.uk/educ.
You can object by writing to the Director of Education and Community, County Hall, Chester CH1 1SQ, to arrive no later than Friday, October 17. All objections will be considered in October/November before the final plan is published.