Smaller proportions of children are gaining places at their preferred secondary school in many areas of England, a survey suggests.
Early figures also indicate that in some parts of the country, around a quarter of families have missed out on their first choice, rising to more than two in five pupils in some London boroughs.
Hundreds of thousands of families across England are finding out which secondary school they will be joining this September, on what is commonly known as National Offer Day.
Findings from a PA news agency survey of local authorities show that, of the 56 councils that gave comparable data, 33 (59%) have seen a fall in the proportion of pupils getting their first choice compared with last year, while 21 (37%) have seen a rise and two (4%) have seen no change.
In addition, of 48 councils in England that gave information on application numbers, 37 (77%) have seen at least a slight increase in applications this year, while 11 (23%) have seen a drop.
England’s school system has been put under pressure due to a rise in the school-age population.
This has been fuelled by a spike in the birth rate in the early 2000s that has made its way through primary schools and is moving into secondary schools.
One in three children in London missed out on a place at their top choice of secondary school, figures from the Pan London Admissions Board show.
Across the capital’s 33 boroughs, only 66% of families were given their first choice of secondary school this year, compared with 68% last year.
Hammersmith and Fulham had the lowest proportion of children getting their top choice, at 57.5%, and in Greenwich 59.9% secured their first preference.
Meanwhile outside London, in Kent, only 69.7% of children got their first preference, a fall on last year, while in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole just 74.4% got their top choice of school for September.
Among the areas where the vast majority of pupils secured their preferred schools are the East Riding of Yorkshire, where 96.9% got their top choice, and north Somerset where 96.4% secured their first pick.
The fall in the number of first-choice places in some areas may have been caused partly by delays to grammar school tests amid Covid-19 disruption.
Normally families are told their child’s entry test score before the admissions deadline in October so they can decide whether to apply to the school.
But this year many selective schools could not confirm places until after the deadline as they had to push back the tests in the autumn due to Covid-19.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said feelings of anxiety among families on National Offer Day have been “heightened by the confusion and uncertainty” amid the pandemic.
He said: “Schools have gone to great lengths to find innovative solutions so that parents can make informed choices, but the reality is that in many instances families could be applying for schools they simply haven’t been able to visit in person.
“It is vital that no child going through the admissions process this year should be disadvantaged. Support must be in place for families to navigate what can be a daunting process.”
Official data shows that 82.2% of pupils were offered their first choice of secondary school last year.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “With all children set to return to classrooms from March 8, delivering good school places in all corners of the country continues to be a priority for this Government.
“We have already created over one million places in the last decade, the largest increase in at least 20 years, and are spending nearly £500 million to provide the places needed for 2023.”