The government went “hell for leather” and approved some free schools “a little bit fast” in the early days of the programme, the Department for Education’s top boss has admitted.

Jonathan Slater, the permanent secretary of the DfE, told the parliamentary public accounts committee this afternoon that the government was accountable for the four mainstream free schools that have closed as a result of poor pupil take-up.

He was quizzed over the situation at Southwark Free School, which it was reported in January was to close after attracting just 60 pupils following its opening in 2012.

Governors said no academy chains wanted to takeover the school because of its low numbers.

Slater said today it was “not a coincidence” that the four mainstream free schools which closed as a result of low pupil uptake were all approved “in the first couple of waves”.

“No mainstream free school approved since 2012 has closed because I think the department learned that going hell for leather, really building a sense of momentum, enthusing, encouraging, was going a little bit fast in some cases and so some schools closed. And we’re accountable for that.”