The building of cutting-edge academies designed by some of the country's leading architects could be halted under a government review, The TES has learned.
This follows criticism that many academies, which can cost up to twice as much as the average new secondary school, are a lavish waste of public money and in some cases are not suitable for pupils' needs.
Ministers want to create 200 academies - independent state schools backed by private sponsors - to replace underachieving comprehensives by 2010.
The review may also trigger the creation of formal partnerships between business backers, which have included retail groups and football clubs, and an education body, such as a university.
To date, only 17 of the new schools have opened, but the project has been dogged by controversy, including concerns over the role of sponsors and their capacity to raise standards.
On Tuesday, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, and Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary, addressed a gathering of academy sponsors at Downing Street.
Now a review is expected to reform the way academies are financed. It is understood ministers are considering dropping the requirement that private sponsors contribute pound;2 million towards building costs. A series of cheaper "standard building designs" may be used for the remaining schools.
Sponsors' pound;2m contribution could be re-channelled into a student fund.
The Department for Education and Skills denies that it amounts to a policy U-turn following negative publicity. But it would deflect criticism, led by unions, that academies are unnecessarily extravagant. The most expensive, City of London academy, Southwark, cost pound;33.7m, compared to DfES guidance in 2002 which stated average new secondaries should cost pound;14.6m.
In an article in May, Tim Brighouse, chief adviser to London schools, said academies were often strong on style but weak on substance. He said one, which he refused to name, but was designed by Norman Foster, reminded him of "an American penitentiary".
One academy player said: "I hope at last they are listening. It is a mistake that all the money gets tied up in buildings when it could be used to provide more innovative curriculum-related initiatives that would impact directly on the children's learning."
The cash donations may also be paid over a longer period, possibly up to two years, rather than the current up-front lump sum, allowing a greater range of sponsors to support the project. Although this already happens in some cases, the change would formalise that arrangement.
Local opposition to the project has already forced sponsors to pull out of six academies. This week, in Lambeth, south London, officials said funding available through the Building Schools for the Future programme meant it would provide an extra school, rather than a third academy.
Sponsors of academies include David Samworth, chairman of Samworth Brothers, which makes Ginster pasties, and Bristol City football club.
A DfES source said that future sponsors would also be encouraged to link up with an educational body. To date, only a handful of academies, including Walsall academy, which is linked to Thomas Telford city technology college, have formed formal partnerships with educationists.
"It is one thing talking about creating 200 academies but quite another implementing it," said a source. "This will look at reasonable ways they can be improved."
A DfES spokeswoman said: "As the Secretary of State said last month in our response to PricewaterhouseCooper's evaluation report, we will shortly be setting out a new framework for taking forward the academies programme as a whole, as it expands.
"This will include proposals to align investment more closely in academies with the Building Schools for the Future scheme."