Ministers have have been forced to turn down nearly nine out of 10 applications to set up new schools as part of the Government's flagship education scheme.
The Independent has learnt that since Michael Gove's Free School programme was launched last year, just 40 out of 323 proposals have been accepted for consideration.
Of those, only four have received a promise of Government funding. Another application has been withdrawn and most of the remaining 35 schools will not open until 2012.
The remaining 283 have been turned down and the applicants told they must re-apply under stricter criteria. These are designed to show they are "fit and proper" people to run a school.
The revelation, which has not been officially announced, is embarrassing for ministers. When the scheme was launched last September, Mr Gove said that he had been "flattered and excited" by the extent of interest in the programme and "enthusiasm" shown by applicants.
But despite assigning almost 100 civil servants to work on the policy – a key part of the Conservative election manifesto costing £4 million – the scheme has not had the impact hoped. Downing Street sources said that while the Academies programme had been a huge success, the same was not true of Free Schools. "I guess you'd give Michael [Gove] a six out of 10," they said. "The problem with Free Schools is that the scheme was designed to fill gaps in areas where there are poorly performing schools. But that's not where the applications have come from."
Sources in the Education Department denied this was the case and said they always expected the Free Schools programme to take longer to come to fruition. "We expect to have at least 10 new schools up and running by September, which is a huge achievement when you consider the track record of the previous government," one said.
Mr Gove has never set a target for the number of Free Schools to be set up. However, in an interview during last year's election campaign, he said a capital programme which would finance 20,000 extra school places a year – between 50 and 100 depending on size – had been agreed.
But after the election he acknowledged this had been scaled down. A statement from the Department for Education said: "The quality of proposals we received was varied with some stronger and more advanced than others."
Some were rejected outright – although many others were advised to consult the Free Schools charity, the New Schools Network, to help them draft an improved proposal. The statement added: "We have given individual feedback to all groups that were not approved because their proposal didn't meet the criteria for setting up a Free School."