A top government adviser has said about 80,000 children go to weak secondary schools each year - some of them so bad they should be "shut down quickly".
Sir Cyril said the system was unfair to poorer families
Sir Cyril Taylor, head of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said about 500 schools were seriously underperforming based on GCSE results.
The government said that its own survey had identified only about 50 unsatisfactory schools.
Teaching groups called Sir Cyril's comments unhelpful and demoralising.
Sir Cyril's definition of underperformance is a school in which less than 25% of pupils achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths, or less than 40% get the equivalent of five good GCSEs in any subjects.
He estimates there are about 500 such schools, and argues that as long as they remain many parents have no real choice of school.
"There are these 80,000 going to schools that are underperforming, and some very badly underperforming," he said in a BBC interview.
"That's what we have got to focus on. That's the unfairness.
"They vary so much. Some are so bad they ought to be shut down quickly and some are struggling and need help."
Sir Cyril said some parents were able to escape these schools by moving house but added admissions should "not be about the size of your mortgage".
Head teachers college
The government says its own definition of low attaining schools identifies only about 50 secondary schools, down from 616 in 1997, adding that 92% of parents are able to send their children to their first-choice school.
This figure is based on research it commissioned some years ago. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) does not collect actual statistics.
Birmingham City Council last year published its admissions figures, which showed that only 63% of parents got the secondary school of their choice.
Schools Minister Lord Adonis said: "We do accept that there is a continued need for improvements, which is why we're building 200 completely new academies, many of them directly replacing failing schools.
"They're highly popular with parents - three applications for every place," he said.
He said there was a new policy of closing failing schools within a year if they were not being turned around.
And a new national college for head teachers aimed to produce "much better trained leaders of our schools so that schools don't get into the kind of difficulties that lead them to fail".
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said Sir Cyril's comments were "unhelpful".
He said: "We know we have got a problem with what can be described as underachieving schools. It does not help to have something like this thrown in your face.
"Whilst, according to Sir Cyril, there are 80,000 children going to underperforming schools, that means there must be close to eight million children that are doing OK."
Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers, said he thought the figures were "exaggerated".
He said: "I firmly believe the vast majority of teachers are doing an excellent job. It's basically scaremongering.
"Comments like this are very demoralising, and I think certainly my members will be very unhappy at this when they are working very hard to raise standards."
Laura Warren, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "What is so easy to lose sight of is that these are real situations - these are our children who haven't got a school place, at very worst, or they have got a place in a school that wasn't their first choice... it's real life."
The DfES said the admissions system had to be made fairer
She added that the schools admissions system was "not understood well enough by parents, and also it's so varied".
A DfES spokeswoman said the admissions system had to be made "fair and transparent" to ensure equal opportunities for every child.
"The new School Admissions Code will help us to create a level playing field where every parent has a fair shot at getting the place they want and will mean that no child is disadvantaged over another," the spokeswoman said.