The study, published in the Oxford Review of Education, examined two large data sets comprising 526,000 students.
The study found that parents who are allowed six school options rather than the typical three are unfairly advantaged, as they can be less cautious in their preferences.
Deakin University’s Dr Emma Rowe said that the study has relevance in an Australian context, particularly as it highlights problems caused by “systems of schooling which drive a consumerist approach, framing some schools as ‘winners’ and others as ‘losers’”.
"This study points to potential issues in fairness and opportunity that are caused by choice systems, in that some groups of parents have greater capacity to choose," Rowe said.
"It also points out that some families make the more ‘safe’ or conservative choice, as opposed to the ‘ambitious’ choice.
"What this really highlights is that—when it comes to popular or over-subscribed schools—the schools do more of the ‘choosing’, than the other way around. When comparing to Australia or trying to make useful comparisons for Australia and what this can teach us in school choice policy, we should remember that our education system differs in terms of the application process.
"However, on saying this, the main point that this study has raised is that the process in which places are allocated is inequitable, and drives up school segregation, and this is certainly teachable for Australia.
"As the authors point out, allocating places to popular over-subscribed schools by proximity tends to favour well-resourced parents, and it means that many parents do not bother applying to a school they don’t believe they will successfully be able to access."
The study also found that black or Asian families, along with families that speak English as a second language, make more use of the school choice system than white, English speaking households.
Forty-one per cent of white British households express only one preference when applying for secondary schools, compared to 17 per cent of Asian and 12 per cent of black households.
In addition, black, Asian and ESL households make more ambitious choices and are far less likely to apply for only their local school.
Eighty-five per cent of households receive an offer from their first-choice school, but a co-author of the study said that this is masking a wider issue.
“Households seem to make pragmatic choices based on the probability of admission at each school,” Professor Simon Burgess said.
“Eighty-five per cent may therefore be viewed negatively as reflecting parents being very cautious in their choices.
“A successful system with active and ambitious choices by parents would result in a lower percentage of parents getting their first choice. Allocating places to popular over-subscribed schools by proximity means that some households have negligible chance of admission to the best schools and it seems that many therefore do not bother applying.
“This is what needs to change to increase fairness in the English system.”