Education official Chris Woodhead has called for Bristol's secondary schools to be freed from the "dead hand of local bureaucrats".
Woodhead is the ex-Ofsted chief inspector
He made the comments during a BBC programme looking at standards in Bristol, which remains rooted at the bottom of the GCSE league table.
More than half of all pupils did not get five good GCSEs last year, and truancy is at double the national rate.
The city council says secondary school standards are improving.
Mr Woodhead, who is chairman of education firm Cognita, met pupils, parents, teachers and a former director of education to assess the state of the city's secondary schools.
Bristol secondary schools
More than 15,100 children are registered
At least a quarter go to private school or state schools outside the city
36% got five good GCSEs in 2005
43.2% got five good GCSEs in 2006
The truancy rate is 2.4%: 360 children miss every day of school
He was unimpressed with what he found - and concerned for parents who told him they were thinking of moving house or paying private fees to avoid some state schools.
One mother said: "It makes me feel like I'm a really rubbish parent, because I haven't got any money and I can't afford to move.
"Am I failing my children because I can't afford to move and I have no choice?"
Mr Woodhead also spent a day with Heather Tomlinson, director of young people and children's services, and Councillor Jos Clark, the politician in charge of education.
Ms Tomlinson told him: "It doesn't help to keep blaming people and harping back to the past.
The educationalist put his concerns to the council
"It's much better to say, as you would advocate in a school that's having difficulties, face up to it and sort it out."
She highlighted the new school building and refurbishment programme, improved truancy rates and the year-on-year increase in GCSE results.
Just over a third of pupils passed with five good GCSEs in 2005.
"We are a city that is taking responsibility for underperformance. We're doing something about it and we're making progress", she added.
But Simon Jenkin, director of the city's schools in 2002, expressed his concern that the situation had not improved since he left.
"If we make a judgement through performance in league tables, if you look at results, there hasn't been the improvements there should be, and that Bristol schools are capable of."
His comments were dismissed by the council.