As few as five “free” schools - a quarter of the government’s target - could open next September, according to sources involved in several of the pioneering schemes

Free schools can be set up by charities, parents, businesses or religious groups. They will be state-funded and free from local authority control. They are also a key part of the government’s education policy and it hopes to open 20 of them next year, having set aside £50m this financial year for pilot projects, a figure that may grow substantially in future.

But one source leading a free school scheme has seen a list of 17 potential sites and predicted that only five will be in a position to open in September 2011 owing to time constraints.

Only a few will be parent or teacher-led. parents don’t have time to do this

Free schools consultant

The source said: “The list didn’t seem very convincing. Plenty were not new schools, but independent schools wanting to come into the state system.”

This undermines the claims of Michael Gove, the education secretary, who said in June that “all the evidence” showed “lots of parent groups, and in particular lots of teachers” would want to start free schools.

A separate source at a consultant working on several free schools expected a maximum of 10 to open next September because of a lack of time on the part of parents. They said: “I can only see 10 going through, with only a few parent or teacher-led. The major problem is that parents don’t have the time to do this.”

It is understood that 30 to 40 groups have applied for free school funding.

One source suggested the government might approach firms on the academies’ project management framework to get the schools set up, rather than allowing school groups to recruit their own project managers.

Rachel Wolf, who is running the free schools programme for the government, said “a lot more than 10” had put in “good proposals”.