Children’s Secretary Ed Balls has announced a raft of measures to strengthen the admissions process and vowed to improve the choice of good schools by tackling 638 secondaries where 70 per cent of pupils fail to get decent GCSEs.
But the liberal thinkthank Progressive Vision claimed the number of pupils missing out on their school of choice was a "national scandal" and the Government should give those parents the cash value of a year’s education.
Staffordshire had the highest proportion of pupils gaining first preference secondary school places and Birmingham the lowest regionally, Government figures show.
Almost 92 per cent of 11-year-olds transferring from primary to secondary school in Staffordshire got their first choice, compared to 65.2 per cent in Birmingham.
The dramatic variation was highlighted in figures on admissions published for the first time nationally by Ministers that show nearly one in five parents failed to secure a place at their preferred school.
Nationally, 81.6 per cent of pupils gained their first preference secondary school. The proportion was slightly lower in the West Midlands at 79.6.
The regional breakdown shows parents in urban areas tended to be less likely to get their first choice.
After Birmingham, Sandwell had the next worst record with only 72.9 per cent of youngsters getting their preferred place.
In Walsall, 73.9 per cent benefited. Warwickshire bucked the trend for rural areas to do better with nearly a quarter of pupils – 24 per cent – missing out.
Shropshire was next best after Staffordshire with 91.8 per cent successful in getting their preferred place.
Nationally, 6.1 per cent of pupils failed to get a place at any of their three first-choice schools. In the West Midlands, the figure was 4.5 per cent. In Birmingham the proportion failing to get any of their six preferences was 6.8 per cent.
Speaking at the Association of School and College Leaders conference in Brighton yesterday, Mr Balls admitted parents would never have a fair choice while hundreds of comprehensives still fail to provide a good education.
"If there’s an excellent school in an area and two considerably weaker schools, that isn’t really a fair choice," he said. "Parents say to me they want every local school to be a good school and we won’t in the end get truly fair admissions until we make every school a good school."
Mr Balls said there would always be parents who were "disappointed and upset" by their allocation.
"In the end the only way to have truly fair admissions is to raise the standards of all schools so that parents can be choosing as they would see it between a range of good schools."
Concern was also raised yesterday over a number of schools that are breaking admissions rules and denying places to children whose parents refuse to pay fees for what should be a free state education.
Mr Balls said a Government education review had uncovered unlawful admissions practices in a "significant minority" of schools.
Most of the schools involved were faith schools.
Mr Balls said such action was "totally unacceptable" and the Church of England said it was "very disturbed" by the findings.
However, Shane Frith, director of Progressive Vision, said more radical reforms of school admissions was needed.
"The only sensible alternative is to ensure that students denied their first choice should be given the equivalent value of their education – about £5,500 a year – to take to any school of their choice.
"This would place power and choice with parents and pupils rather than with bureaucrats and politicians."