The Government must sort out the admissions system as a priority, giving parents a choice while ensuring that no child is left without a place, say campaigners.
As thousands of children this week started at their second or third choice secondary schools, the Advisory Centre for Education reported that more parents than ever rang its hotline during the past academic year after being rejected by the school they had requested.
And Margaret Tulloch, of the Campaign for State Education, said the Government had hard questions to answer as it tried to clear up the mess of the admissions system.
The Audit Commission outlined the problem in a report last December. Trading Places declared parental choice a myth, with one in five failing to get their first choice and appeals up 44 per cent over three years. The system was approaching gridlock, it warned.
CASE blames the fragmentation of state education, with grant-maintained schools running separate systems from local authorities, and selection putting a further spanner in the works.
The Government's White Paper proposes national guidelines, with local authorities creating joint admissions forums with grant-maintained and church schools.
Ms Tulloch said: "All will depend on how tight the guidelines are and how much the Government watches over whether schools are operating them."
She added: "There should be clear guidelines, probably based on siblings and nearness to school, with a neighbourhood school your children has a right to attend and the option of others if there are places."
ACE says a growing proportion of its 5,000 calls a year is taken up by admissions problems - more than it can handle. It has responded with Appealing for a School, a booklet to guide parents through the complex process.
"The problem is most parents don't understand the remit of the appeals committee," a spokeswoman said. "There is a whole layer of people with a strong reason for a particular school who aren't actually expressing it in the right way and are losing their appeal when they should have had a reasonable chance of winning."
But local authorities with particular problems suggested things were starting to settle down - and some were pre-empting the Government's plans.
In the London borough of Brent, 11 of the 13 secondary schools have opted out.
Chief education officer John Simpson said: "Two years ago the GM schools decided to run their own admissions systems. That was a mess." Now, the GM schools pay the council for administrative work to co-ordinate the system and track multiple applications. Mr Simpson said: "That will serve us well when we have an admissions forum."
School Choices and Appeals (Pounds 5.50) and Appealing for a School (Pounds 1.50) from ACE, 1b Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2DQ