In just 12 months, more than half of the nation’s towns and counties have seen a fall in the proportions of 11-year-olds winning a place at their first choice, according to a Press Association analysis of government data.
The situation has also become tougher over the past five years, with two-thirds of local authorities witnessing a drop in the percentages of pupils gaining any of their preferred schools.
The figures come the day children across England learn which secondary school they will attend from this autumn, on what is known as National Offer Day.
There have been continuing concerns about a squeeze on school places, caused in part by a recent rise in the birthrate, that is now seeing its way through into secondary schools.
Council chiefs said they are doing all they can to create enough school places, but warned they are doing so “with one hand behind their backs” as they need more powers to open new schools and force academies, which are not under their control, to expand.
The Press Association analysis of Department for Education (DfE) data, shows that last year, 80 out of 151 local councils (53%) saw a drop in the proportion of pupils given their first choice of secondary school, compared with the year before, while 68 authorities (45%) saw a fall in the percentage given one of their overall preferences.
Families typically list a number of choices, in order of preference, on school application forms.
More than half (57%) of authorities, 85 in total, have seen a fall in the proportion of 11-year-olds offered their first secondary school preference over the past five years.
And around two-thirds, 98 councils (65%), have seen a drop in overall choices during this time.
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) children and young people board, said: “Creating an extra 300,000 primary places over recent years is a demonstrable record that councils are doing everything they can to rise to the challenge of ensuring no child goes without a place.
“However, as children move on to secondary schools, the majority of which are now academies, councils are working with one hand behind their backs to help as many as possible receive a place at their first-choice school.
“If they are to meet the demand for secondary school places, then existing academy schools should be made to expand where required, or councils should be given back the powers to open new maintained schools.”
Justine Roberts, chief executive of parenting website Mumsnet, said: “School place allocation is all about where you live, and parents’ experiences differ accordingly.
“In a survey of our users last year, 56% reported not having a ‘real’ choice when it came to schools their children had a realistic chance of getting into; in areas where popular schools are over-subscribed, Mumsnet users report finding the process pretty darned stressful. What people want is real choice, effective around the country. We can’t have that without more investment in schools.”
A DfE spokesman said: “The proportion of parents getting a place at their first choice of school remains stable, and last year almost all parents got an offer at one of their top three preferred schools.
“Nearly 600,000 additional pupil places were created between May 2010 and May 2015, and the Government is now pushing ahead with the creation of a further 600,000 new school places as part of its wider £23 billion investment in the school estate up to 2021.”