David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, warned this week that ministers will move on schools that have been failing for two years.
The School Standards and Framework Bill, currently in the House of Lords, will give them, for the first time, the power to close schools directly. Currently, closure proposals have to be put to ministers by local education authorities.
Mr Blunkett said: "Where there is persistent failure and schools fail to respond, we have no choice. This is no idle threat.
"As an indicator, we think two years is a long time to be in special measures. It will depend on what progress those schools are making. It may be that a new head has been appointed and the schools is improving. We will act where there is persistent failure," said Mr Blunkett.
His target is likely to be the 41 schools that have been failing for more than two years. Currently 486 schools are on the Office for Standards in Education's list of those requiring special measures.
According to Mr Blunkett, ministers would prefer to close a school that had failed to improve, and open another on the site. "Where the community wants a school in that area, we would prefer a fresh start," he said.
Before taking any decision on closure, ministers would consult the local education authority and would take advice from OFSTED and the standards and effectiveness unit of the Department for Education and Employment. Account will be taken of national curriculum test results.
The last annual report from Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, pointed to a small number of failing schools, particularly secondary, where improvement "has been too slow".
Mr Blunkett also made clear that there would be no reluctance to use the powers in the Bill to deal with inadequate local education authorities. Ministers intend, he said, to scrutinise the plans that local authorities will have to provide showing how they intend to develop education.
"We will be able to intervene to ensure there are alternatives where a local education authority is failing. We will make judgments from the education development plans," he said.
The School Standards and Framework Bill is expected to reach the statute book by the end of July.