Oversubscribed schools are being forced to haul teachers out of the classroom and hire specialist lawyers to cope with tens of thousands of "groundless" admissions appeals from disgruntled parents.
The most recent government figures, published last month, reveal that out of 83,000 admissions appeals submitted to local authority-maintained schools in 2010-11, almost three-quarters (72 per cent) were rejected - the highest proportion in the past five years. For places in infant classes, just one in seven (14 per cent) of the appeals was successful.
Schools have warned that the vast majority of appeals are submitted simply because parents do not like the fact that their child has been turned away, rather than because of genuine grievances. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has called for parents to be required to demonstrate that they have grounds for an appeal, such as maladministration by the admissions authority or failure to follow procedures, rather than parents simply being unhappy with a school's decision.
St Marylebone School, an oversubscribed Church of England school in London, which converted to academy status in September 2011, has 150 places in Year 7 and typically receives 100 appeals each year.
Head Elizabeth Phillips told TES that the school has been forced to hire a full-time admissions officer to deal with the paperwork, and has consulted a firm of education lawyers for advice on keeping its numbers down. "Parents want their children to go to a good school, not any school," she said. "I don't think there are generally grounds for appeal. I think that parents are just trying to get a place at the school they want.
"Why should oversubscribed schools have to spend so much time and money on admissions and appeals? They are being penalised for being in great demand. It's a cost to schools at a time when budgets are going down."
Each year Northampton School for Boys receives about 100 appeals for Year 7 places and 30 on behalf of prospective sixth-formers, according to head Mike Griffiths.
Mr Griffiths, the current ASCL president, said that he has to send teachers to represent the school at appeal panel hearings. "They take place during the school day, so my best chemistry teacher misses six or seven days of teaching a year in the last three weeks before the A-levels group goes on study leave.
"This means that youngsters miss out on having their teacher because he's got to sit in a meeting in which he is saying pretty much nothing. It's a big waste of time, energy and money.
"Everyone seems to think that their child has been rejected - that this particular child has been sent away unfairly as he's a nice little chap. We don't put names in a 'no' pile; we just have only so many yeses we can give."
The national figures published by the Department for Education do not cover the 2,400 academies that have opened, as they are responsible for managing their own admissions arrangements. Margaret Tulloch, secretary of the Comprehensive Future campaign for fair admissions, believes the scale of the problem could be far greater.
"We have had years and years of parents being told they have a choice," she said. "It's inevitable that it's important to parents to feel they are making the right choice. It's not surprising there are more parents appealing. For lawyers, it's become a real growth area."
Speaking at the Westminster Education Forum in September, education solicitor John Walker said that parents should not be denied the right to appeal. "The appeals process does enable children who really do need places at certain schools to get into those schools," he said.