Although a big majority get their preferred choice, the trend is causing hotspots of demand for places on the outskirts of several cities around the country.
Researchers say the "grass is greener" attitude is particularly marked among middle-class families who actively pursue what they see as the best school for their children. Those who are rejected hit back - appeals against allocations of secondary places have more than doubled in five years.
But the ability of popular schools in England to heed parental choice was put in question this week when the Government confirmed it was not following the Welsh Office decision to set up the Pounds 20 million scheme to expand popular schools.
Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham and London all suffer from emigration from their inner areas. In Haringey, north London, one in five primary pupils transfers from the borough at 11, of whom three in four go to outer boroughs.
Up to 2,000 Bristol secondary pupils cross the city boundary every day, a worrying figure for council officials preparing for the city's unitary status next year. They are already merging a boys' and a girls' school in the city to cope with declining numbers.
Adrian Verwoert, head of The Castle School, in Thornbury, north of Bristol, says he has no desire to recruit inner-city pupils. Parents of children as young as three telephone asking to be put down on a waiting list, although none exists, he said. "Parents believe their children will get a better education out in the sticks and there is an element of success breeding success. But if those children from Bristol stayed at their own local school it would raise the standards there."
Stephen Ball, professor of the sociology of education at King's College, London, says working- class families are more concerned with sending their children to school locally, while middle classes exploit parental preference.
An important test of the Government's attitude to school expansion is due within weeks in south-west London. The DFE will choose between Sutton council's plan to build a new comprehensive or a Funding Agency for Schools scheme to expand seven existing schools, six of which have forms of selection.
Fifty parents in Sutton have had no offer at all of a secondary place this September, partly because of the influx to popular selective schools, which take more than half their pupils from other areas. Sutton's education director, Chris Blurton, fears this problem will not be solved if most expansion is in selective schools.
In Surrey, where 80 children in Epsom and Ewell faced a long bus journey to their allocated school, the FAS persuaded local GM schools to provide an extra 80 places. Here too, the authority wants to build an extra secondary school and may face alternative plans from the agency, which has joint control over planning of secondary places, to further expand the GM sector.