Only eight new free schools are certain to open their doors at the start of the next academic year in September, it has been revealed.
When he launched the programme - which allows parents, companies or charities to set up schools within the state system but free of council control - last year, Education Secretary Michael Gove said he had received more than 700 expressions of interest.
Mr Gove insisted that the rate of progress had been "phenomenal". He expects "more than 10" free schools to be ready for the new academic year, but said many more would follow over the following three years.
The Education Secretary refused to set a target for the creation of free schools, telling Channel 4 News last night: "One of the things I'm chary of is engaging in what the Prime Minister calls dartboard politics, which is allowing an obsession with numbers to supplant a debate about quality."
The Department for Education has confirmed that it received 323 applications to open free schools, of which some 26 have so far been approved to enter the "pre-opening stage".
It will be officially confirmed next week that eight schools have signed funding agreements, giving them the green light to take pupils from next term. Channel 4 News research suggested that a further 16 are hopeful of opening in September.
The schools with funding agreements are understood to be Batley Grammar School in Kirklees, Nishkam Free School in Birmingham, Bradford Science Academy, St Luke's C of E Primary School in the north London borough of Camden, Eden Primary School in the north London borough of Haringey, Stour Valley Community School in Suffolk, Free School Norwich, and West London Free School in Hammersmith & Fulham.
C4N reported that of the 24 schools hoping to open this year, just two - both primary schools with a combined total of 160 pupil places - were in the 10% poorest boroughs in England. Nine were in the top 50% better-off areas, four of which were existing independent schools applying for state funding under the free school status.
Shadow education secretary Andy Burnham told the programme: "Money is being siphoned out of our schools around the country to pay for a free school programme that actually is going to areas where the greatest challenges don't exist."
But Mr Gove said it was "fantastic" that private schools were joining the state system as free schools.
"In effect, we are doing what progressives like you and I have long wanted to do, which is break down the barriers and nationalise private education," he told interviewer Jon Snow.
Children from modest backgrounds would for the first time be able to go to the independent schools taking part in the programme, which will be "socially comprehensive but aspirational", he said.
Mr Gove dismissed suggestions that he was disappointed with the number of free schools coming through in the first year of the programme.
Previous reforms of the educational system had been "painfully slow", including Labour's academy programme which took three years to deliver its first three schools, he said.
"Less than 15 months after the legislation was passed that enabled free schools to be set up, we are going to have more than 10 of them being established and we will have more flowing on from those," said the Education Secretary.
"If you look historically at the rate of school creation, it's phenomenal."
Groups who have succeeded in gaining approval to open in September 2011 had been working "incredibly hard at breakneck speed".
"What we know is that in the years to come, in the lifetime of this coalition Government, more and more groups will be coming forward, many of them with increasingly impressive proposals, so I expect that many of those expressions of interest will materialise into new schools being created in areas where there is a desperate need for them," said Mr Gove.
The Department for Education later confirmed that eight would-be free schools had secured funding agreement, clearing the way for them to open in September.
A further 21 are at "pre-opening stage" and three at the less advanced "business case and plan stage".
Of the total of 32, some 24 were aiming to open in September 2011 and eight after 2011, said a spokeswoman.