New powers in the Education Act 1993 give Mr Patten the ability to force local authorities to take action to close schools. He has already asked local education authorities to review their surplus places and submit proposals on how to tackle them.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said Mr Patten has on his desk plans to close some schools, put forward by local education authorities. But he denied a report yesterday in the Observer that as many as 1,000 schools would be closed. 'It's nothing like 1,000 . . . It will be in the tens,' he said.
The Observer claimed that over the next 18 months more than 1,000 schools will be told they are to close but said the full extent of the plan would not become clear until after the local elections in May.
Ministers are anxious to tackle spare places, which reached 1.3 million in England's 4,000 secondary and 18,000 primary schools in 1991. Overheads on school buildings alone cost almost pounds 300 a year for each spare secondary school place.
A Treasury review has reportedly found that pounds 310m could be saved by getting rid of the excess places, with more cash from the sale of school buildings.
Regulations are to be made obliging state schools to provide an annual update on spare places. This will be used to assess how good local education authorities and the Funding Agency for Schools, which deals with opted-out schools, are at cutting places.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on education, said it had become increasingly clear that Mr Patten wanted to have 'complete control over education in England'.
'Following undenied rumours of plans to force all secondary schools to opt out, he now seems set to determine which schools should be shut.'