FALLING pupil numbers in Cheshire'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 proposals which may lead to a radical shake up.
A draft School Organisation Plan sets out how the availability of school places in Cheshire will meet the requirements of the population from 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 in the next five years.
Education chiefs say primary school numbers in Cheshire will fall by nearly 2,900 pupils between now and 2008.
Their policy is to merge neighbouring schools if they are operating at less than three-quarters full.
A set of tables shows 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. Schools with 'spare places' could follow the fate of Hoole All Saints Infant School and St James's Junior in Chester, recently amalgamated on to one site.
Following the success of the merger, reviews of infant and junior schools have taken place to explore the possibility of amalgamation and a consideration will be given to the possibility of federating small rural schools.
Figures show the number of surplus spaces in Northwich primary schools is running at 13.3%, but is expected to rise to 17.2% by 2008. In Winsford the figure of 14.4% is set to rise to 18.2%, while in Middlewich the figure of 12.5% is expected to leap to 19.3%.
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 number of surplus spaces in Vale Royal of 14% is expected to drop to 11.4% by 2008, while in Congleton, which includes Middlewich, it is expected to rise from 3.4% to about 6%.
The council says analysis of need within the secondary sector and opportunities to reduce surplus places will be explored.
But perhaps the biggest change could be to the county's special schools.
Education chiefs may soon be faced with the challenge of closing some of the county's special schools and educating special-needs pupils in mainstream classes.
The report stated: '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.'
* To view the plan for Cheshire, visit www.cheshire.gov.uk/educ. You can comment by writing to the Director of Education and Community, County Hall, Chester CH1 1SQ, by Friday, October 17.