The parents of 16,000 final year primary pupils in Birmingham have been told they have less than a month to apply for a secondary school place.

Education chiefs in the city are currently stepping up an awareness drive to ensure parents make informed choices to avoid later disappointment and dispute.

A team of "choice advisers" is touring secondary school opening days to offer help and advice before the October 5 deadline.

"The main target is vulnerable parents -parents who would have difficulty in understanding the system," said Julie Newbold, admissions and appeals co-ordinator at Birmingham City Council.

"However, we want to make sure advice is there for anybody who needs it. During the open evenings we talk to parents to make sure they are selecting schools they will meet the criteria for.

"Now is our busiest time - as parents are considering submitting their preferences we want to make sure they have an understanding of what they are doing."

For many parents, the next few weeks marks the end of an intense period weighing up the options available to them.

On application forms given to them in July, they must list six schools in order of preference including the city's grammars, faith schools, other types of selective schools and community schools.

Once all the forms are in, the authority administers the biggest schools' matching up exercise in the country with some 96,000 preferences to deal with.

It means contacting all the schools listed for every pupil to see if they will offer a place.

A letter is sent to parents at the beginning of March with an offer closest to the top preference they listed.

About 65 per cent of parents get their first choice, though the figure is slightly misleading, explained Ms Newbold.

"Because we have an equal preference system, though a child is not really grammar school material, you may as well put a grammar school as your top preference as long as the other preferences are ones that your child will get in," she said.

According to statistics from the authority, 97 per cent of pupils get one of their preferences.

Though selective and faith schools have their own admissions criteria, all maintained community schools must adhere to three principles governing offers.

First priority goes to applications from children in care, followed by those who already have a sibling at the school.

The third priority - and the one that causes the most controversy - is distance as the crow flies of the child from the school.

It is this aspect that is often accused of resulting in wealthier parents gaining an unfair advantage by being able to move near to good schools.

According to education chiefs, about 300 parents last year put down unrealistic preferences which did not meet any of the criteria.

About half of these were persuaded to revise their application.

The authority's admission team believes its awareness drive is proving successful with a reduction in the number of appeals against school offers.

Last year there were 800 compared to about 1,000 previously - a figure which represents only five per cent of the total number of applications.

Of those, only 5.5 per cent of appeals were successful."

"We believe that is because parents are now able to access more information by attending more open evenings and awareness events," said Ms Newbold.

"The fact is that 97 per cent of children who live in Birmingham are being offered one of their six preferred schools. It is down to parents having a true understanding of how the admissions process works and taking on board the advice and guidance we give them."

* Parents needing help filling in their child's application form can contact a choice adviser on 0121 675 2608.