Ofsted and the Government are at loggerheads over ministers' plans to force failing schools to close within a year if they do not improve, The TES can reveal.
The Education Bill due to be published in the autumn will give new powers to Ofsted to force the closure of failing schools, thus ending the situation where schools can continue in special measures year after year.
But Ofsted is fighting a rearguard action against the plans. It fears such hardline powers could turn its planned new "light-touch" inspection regime into an iron fist. It also believes the threat of closure could discourage honest school self-evaluation, a key part of the new inspection regime.
The measure is part of the Government's drive to push up standards by ensuring schools are more accountable to ministers and the public.
Delivering the Specialist Schools Trust annual lecture, Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said: "We cannot and will not tolerate a situation whereby some schools go on needing special measures for three, four or even six years.
"Every year of failure represents a lost year in the life of a child and blights their future."
Details of the new powers are still being discussed within Whitehall but it is believed there is heated debate within the department about how long failing schools should be given to turn themselves around.
Hardliners favour closing schools which have not emerged from special measures within 12 months while others favour giving them two years.
Failing schools that are closed are likely to be replaced by academies - helping the Government to hit its target of 200 academies by 2010.
Under the Government's plans to tighten accountability, successful schools will be expected to use new data on individual pupils' performance to identify under-performing departments and force them to raise their game.
From September, the new inspection regime will also raise the pressure on 1,000 "coasting" schools identified by chief inspector David Bell in this year's annual report, Ms Kelly said.
And ministers are set to press ahead with plans to give parents the power to call in inspectors where they believe a school has deteriorated between inspections or escaped special measures by deceiving inspectors.
But the head of a school that has emerged successfully from special measures, said her experience showed it was often worth keeping failing schools open.
Henry Mellish school in Nottingham was one of the latest round of specialist school announced last month.
The school spent four years in special measures before coming out in May last year. The number of pupils gaining five good GCSEs increased from 13 per cent in 2003 to 27 per cent last year.
Joan Young, headteacher, who took over in October 2002, said: "Closing and re-opening a school isn't always the answer. It would have been a catastrophe for the local community. We managed to turn things around and I'm sure lots of others have."
Under the new inspection framework, schools will be judged on a four-point scale ranging from "outstanding" to "inadequate" rather than the current seven-point scale.
Ms Kelly has warned that schools currently judged good may not be so in future.
An Ofsted spokeswoman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the Bill before it was published.
* A documentary shown on Channel 4 last night claimed Intake high school arts college in Leeds hid problem pupils during an inspection.
The Dispatches programme also showed film from three other schools - Highbury Grove and St Aloysius in north London and John Smeaton in Leeds.
The footage was taken by a Alex Dolan, a supply teacher who secretly filmed pupils' anti-social behaviour and disregard for teachers' authority.