A "shocking" number of schools are breaking admissions rules and denying places to children whose parents refuse to pay fees for what should be a free state education, ministers warned today.
Nearly one in five children fail to win a place at their preferred secondary school this year, Government figures showed.
Children's Secretary Ed Balls warned that a Government education review had uncovered unlawful admissions practices in a "significant minority" of schools.
Most of the schools involved were faith schools, many of which can legally ask parents for voluntary financial contributions towards their children's education.
But a snapshot survey in three out of 150 local authorities found some schools were "asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission", he said.
In one case, parents were told to complete a standing order at the time they applied for a place.
Mr Balls said such action was "totally unacceptable".
Schools Minister Jim Knight said some of the unlawful activities uncovered in the survey of Northamptonshire, Manchester and Barnet, north London, had been banned under primary legislation.
He said: "The fact that there are some things that are singled out in primary legislation that are still going on is shocking."
Ministers have written to 119 schools which have control over their own admissions in these three areas, warning them that they must comply with the new statutory school admissions code which came into force last year.
Mr Balls said 570 primary and secondary schools had been examined in the three areas.
He said: "The large majority of schools appear to be complying with the code.
"However, a significant minority of schools in our sample appear not to be compliant with the code, of which a disproportionate number are voluntary aided or foundation schools.
"Practices revealed in our survey which are non-compliant with the code include schools asking parents to commit to making financial contributions as a condition of admission, not giving looked-after children the priority required by law, asking about the marital status, occupational or financial status of parents, giving priority on the basis of family members who are not siblings attending the school, and interviewing children."
All these practices were banned under the new code.
Mr Balls accepted that the code was not working as it should do and promised to strengthen the rules for next year.
All local authorities in England will be required to report each year on whether schools are complying with the rules in their area under plans to amend the law, Mr Balls said.
The schools adjudicator will then have a complete picture of the fairness of admissions across the country.
Plans will be drawn up to give parents and local communities a bigger say over admissions arrangements in their area and ministers will publish a guide for parents on how the application system works and how to appeal next month.
Objections by parents and councils to school admissions policies must currently be completed in a six-week period.
But this will be extended to 16 weeks under the Government's plans.
Mr Balls said: "For any school that is imposing financial obligations on the parents I want to be clear that this practice must stop immediately.
"Parents must not be required to pay any contribution to the school as a condition of admission whatever they may have agreed to do when making their application.
"Any school that has asked parents to make a financial contribution as a condition of admission must make clear to those parents now that such a payment is not mandatory," he said.
Mr Balls said the Government survey found some schools were asking parents to pay "hundreds" of pounds every term.
He said there was nothing to indicate that the three areas investigated were any different from the rest of the country and expressed concern that these unfair practices were likely to be occurring throughout England.
The acting chair of the Church of England's Board of Education said he was "very disturbed" to see the high proportion of church schools among those breaching the rules.
The Bishop of Dover, Stephen Venner, told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "Ed Balls used the word 'horrified' in his statement, and I think I would repeat that.
"We are entirely behind the Government in what they have discovered and in the actions they are taking to try to deal with it.
"We have said all along we will work with Government and local authorities to ensure that appropriate admissions criteria are in place and that they are followed."Reuse content