Unpopular schools with large numbers of unfilled places will be forced to close, unless the local authority can explain why they are so empty.
Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, said last Friday that there were a total of 773,820 surplus places in English schools, representing 10 per cent of the total capacity of 7.6 million places.
"The supply of and demand for places must be brought more closely into balance so that parental preference can be maximised and that good quality education can be provided in the most cost-effective manner," he said.
He has asked local authorities for a detailed response on surplus capacity, particularly the 120 failing schools with more than a quarter of their places empty.
Mr Byers said: "Surplus school places represent a poor use of resources, particularly where schools with surplus places are performing poorly."
Figures show 568 secondaries and 2,128 primaries have room for 25 per cent more children.
The minister said that special pleading, for example on behalf of small village schools, would be listened to.