Government proposals to create three new categories of school will foment division, distrust and widespread disruption, according to chief education officers.
They claim the policy will switch the focus away from raising standards and back onto school structure as schools are forced to choose between community, aided and foundation status.
The Association of Chief Education Officers and the Society of Education Officers spoke out as the Government prepares a Bill, to be introduced this autumn, which will abolish the grant-maintained sector.
Local authority politicians have warned also that proposals for new groups of foundation schools may result in the work of councils on standards becoming harder.
The framework, which is expected to be introduced from April 1999, did not appear in Labour's manifesto.
Roy Jobson, chair of the ACEO and Manchester's education director, warned that it would continue "the running sore" of argument for several years.
David Cracknell, president of the SEO and group director of Cheshire's education service, added: "Too many schools, communities and parents will still be preoccupied with the puerile pursuit of status."
Senior civil servants are understood to be surprised at the strength of unhappiness among education directors about the proposals.
Ministers have insisted that it is standards, not structures, that matter. However, schools standards minister Stephen Byers conceded in an interview with The TES that structures were not irrelevant, .
The Department for Education and Employment will allocate a category to each school by next September, but heads, governors and parents will decide whether to accept it or not.
Ministers expect local authority schools to become community schools, church schools to become aided and grant-maintained schools to become foundation.
The SEO wants the DFEE to allocate a category to a school. There would then be a five-year moratorium on change.
"I know it might mean some GM schools might not be able to become community schools but quite frankly we need to put a stop to the instability in the system and get our noses down to the quality grindstone," said Mr Cracknell.
The SEO wants one of the guiding principles of the new system to be that schools work with each other and the local community.
A technical paper fleshing out the details of Government's plans for schools was released on August 1. It has not been sent to schools.
An ACEO conference due to take place tomorrow to discuss the proposals has been cancelled because of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.
* Stephen Byers interview, TES2, pages 4 and 5
* GM heads' future, page 7