The proportion of pupils gaining places at their first-choice secondary school has fallen, figures show.
Nearly a fifth of children have missed out on their top choice of secondary school, rising to more than two in five pupils in some areas of England, according to data from the Department for Education (DfE).
It comes as the number of applications to secondary schools in England rose by 0.8% to just over 605,200.
Figures show 81.1% of children starting secondary school this September have received an offer from their first-choice school, down from 82.2% last year.
Slough had the lowest proportion of families getting their top choice at just 56.1%, followed by Hammersmith and Fulham (57.3%) and Richmond upon Thames (59.8%) in London.
The DfE said the figure will have been affected by the delay to the selective school tests due to the pandemic.
In some local authorities – including Slough – parents could name selective schools on the application form when their child may not have reached the standard required for an offer.
The statistics show the proportion of children securing their preferred primary school has increased, from 90.2% in 2020 to 91.8% this year.
The number of applications to primary schools in England dropped by 5.1% to around 580,700.
Lower birth figures meant a drop in the number of applications was expected, but the DfE said several local authorities had advised that a larger than usual number of applications were submitted late.
Such late applications will not be included in these figures but will be found a school place to start reception year in September 2021.
The DfE added that there might be an increase in the number of parents and opting to home school due to the pandemic, while a reduction in migration, because of the pandemic travel controls, may have contributed to the fall.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Most pupils gain places at their first-choice schools, but a significant number, particularly at secondary level, don’t do so, and this is bound to be very disappointing for the families concerned.
“The main reason this happens is the competition which exists for places at schools which are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
“These schools are often over-subscribed and some families therefore miss out on their first preference.
“The solution is for the Government to put more support into struggling schools and make sure every family has access to a good school place.
“Unfortunately, the current system is not working well enough for schools which face the greatest degree of challenge and the communities they serve.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Until the Government sorts its act out and comes up with a national strategy to guarantee there are enough school places for every child in England, the annual anxious wait for families will always be a problem.
“For too many, there will be huge disappointment. In some parts of the country, it will mean children having to travel long distances to go to secondary school or being separated from their peers.
“The Government’s own figures show that an extra 418,000 secondary school places will be needed in England by 2027, to meet the 14.7% rise in pupil population.
“There is a desperate need for long-term planning that spans all sectors.”
School standards minister Nick Gibb said: “For the fourth consecutive year more than 90% of children have been offered a place at either their top primary school choice or one of their top three secondary school choices, which I know means a huge amount to families.
“Children and young people are now vastly more likely to be at a good or outstanding school than they were 10 years ago, so parents across the country can be confident their child will get the high-quality education they deserve.”