Schools should also be made to publish socio-economic data on applications and admissions, the report from social mobility charity the Sutton Trust has said.
The study sets out clear evidence of how rich parents are using their wealth to ensure their children access the school of their choice.
It also highlights how a minority of parents are cheating the system, some going as far as to buy second homes in favourable catchment areas.
One teaching union said the report proves that “school admission on the basis of a parents’ ability to pay is becoming a reality”.
The study, Parent Power, finds that 32 per cent of professional parents with children aged five to 16 have moved to an area which they thought had good schools, while 18 per cent have moved to live in the catchment area of a specific school.
A minority of parents with children at state schools also admit to cheating the system, with two per cent buying a second home and using that address to register for a school, three per cent using a relative’s address, and six per cent attending church services when they didn’t previously so their child could attend a church school.
The research was carried out by Professor Becky Francis of King’s College London, and Professor Merryn Hutchings of London Metropolitan University, and is based on interviews with 1,173 parents of school-age children.
It calls for several steps to be taken to ensure a “more level playing field”, including the mandatory publication of socio-economic data on applications and admissions to encourage inclusive practice.
It also wants to see fairer systems of ballots or banding, coupled with better information about school transport.
It states: “Schools and organisations responsible for education locally should take steps to implement systems not subject to bias at school level, such as ballots (or random allocation), or fair banding. Ideally this should be area-based.”
The report highlights what it says is a “little known” entitlement to free school transport. Since September 2008, the law has extended rights to free transport for all children from low-income groups who are 11 or over – either to a choice of schools within six miles of the child’s home, or to the nearest school preferred by reason of a parent’s religion or belief up to 15 miles away.
Prof Francis said: “Our research shows just how far equality of opportunity is being undermined by the greater purchasing power of some parents. The ability for some parents but not others to use financial resources to secure their children’s achievement poses real impediments for social mobility, which need to be recognised and addressed as detrimental to society.”
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, added: “School admissions need to be fairer so that the best schools aren’t just for those who can afford to live nearby, with ballots used particularly in urban areas.”
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “In a system predicated on parental choice, a watered down and ineffective admissions code and framework is bound to lead to the unfairness that this report highlights.
“This is compounded by the weakening by this coalition government of the role of local authorities, the schools’ adjudicator and the local ombudsman, all of which have seen either their funding slashed or their powers weakened since 2010. Admission on the basis of a parents’ ability to pay is becoming a reality.”
Elsewhere, the study also found that parents rely more on school visits or open days (70 per cent) and talking to other parents (62 per cent) in choosing schools than Ofsted reports (57 per cent) and school prospectuses (53 per cent).