E Jane Dickson: My son's OK – but the system is crazy

Comprehensives should take equal numbers of pupils across all abilities

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Mark Twain once said: "First, God created idiots. That was just for practice. Then he created school boards." This week, as the Schools Secretary Ed Balls announces a likely U-turn on Labour's use of lotteries to allocate places in secondaries, it's hard not to concur.

It's not easy to pinpoint exactly when or how secondary transfer turned into such a trauma, but it's getting worse by the year. With up to 20 pupils now competing for every place at the most popular state schools, reasonable liberal parents turn into feral, snappish secretive creatures desperate to claw an advantage for bemused offspring who have grown up sweetly believing that "as long as they do their best", everything will turn out fine.

The lottery policy, adopted by 25 local authorities around the country, was, I believe, a sincere attempt to make state schools genuinely comprehensive by closing the loophole that allows affluent parents to buy their way into the best-performing schools. In certain areas of the country, the schools-related premium on property prices, frankly acknowledged by estate agents, runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds. It scarcely required a crystal ball to foresee that the natural consequence of the lottery system, in such areas, would be a dramatic surge in applications to private schools. (In the much publicised "test-case" of Brighton and Hove, applications to the independent sector have increased by 44 per cent since the schools lottery was trialled in 2007).

There's an argument, frequently rehearsed by Left-leaning parents who feel they have been "forced" into private secondary education by lack of choice, that they are relieving pressure on the state system by removing their children from it. Much, one imagines, as rats are concerned to lighten the ballast on sinking ships. Surveying the choices in my own local borough, I've stopped blaming parents who choose to buy what they perceive as the best for their children, but to claim it as an act of public service seems to me an hypocrisy too far.

It is increasingly apparent, in any case, that, in education, the traditional battle-line between haves and have nots has blurred. Setting aside the issue of private versus state, there is a veritable hamster-run of loopholes in the state sector open for exploitation by savvy parents. Buying into a catchment area may be the most easily identifiable wheeze, but it is by no means the only bump on the state schools' playing field.

I know I wasn't the only parent who spent a sleepless night this week waiting for the post to bring news of my child's future and my relief when my son was offered a place at his first-choice school, a Voluntary Aided comprehensive, was immense. I wish I had the strength of my socialist convictions to send my boy to the nearest state school and have done with it, but, like so many, I stopped being quite so gusty on this subject around about the time when my own children were coming up to secondary education.

If things had turned out differently for Con, I was poised to swing into appeals mode, and it can be no comfort to the many thousands of parents now girding their loins for the appeals panel to learn that this too is a lottery, of the post-code variety. Last year's available data show that the chances of success at appeal stage vary hugely across the country. In Sunderland and Wiltshire, for example, some 70 per cent of appeals were granted. In some London boroughs, by contrast, the percentage of successful appeals was in single figures. Whether figures at the lower end of the scale reflect parental aspiration or parental desperation is a moot point, but it sure as hell makes a mockery of the notion of fair choice.

The sprinkling throughout the state system of selective grammar schools, most , though not all , of which are sprinkled in solidly middle-class areas, scarcely argues for a genuine meritocracy (and that's before you factor in the years of private tutoring commonplace in applicants to such schools.)

It is evident, too, that some comprehensives comprehend rather more than others. It is standard practice, in many high-performing comps, to reserve places for pupils with high attainment, in particular subjects such as music, drama or dance. Talent clearly is no respecter of class, but it is surely naïve to imagine that middle-class children, drilled from birth in every conceivable accomplishment, are not at an advantage here.

If Ed Balls is really concerned about social cohesion in schools, he needs to reconsider more than the blunt instrument of lottery places. For a start he could introduce a universal "fair banding" system, whereby state comprehensives are required to take equal numbers of more able, average and less able students. It would be mistake, and a dangerous one at that, to equate "more able" with "more means", but it is only when state schools offer broadly standardised levels of attainment that true social mobility in education can be hoped for.

It is far from an impossible ideal. We only have to look to France and many other European countries where the comprehensive lycee system is uniformly impressive and private education is regarded as a frankly eccentric choice. Nor is it a coincidence that teachers in France enjoy professional prestige on a par with lawyers and doctors.

If we are to build schools of value in Britain, we must first value our teachers. Not just in terms of dinner party placement , but in terms of training and, crucially, remuneration. At present, far too many able teachers are hived off to the private sector, attracted by better working conditions and salaries. The demoralisation of teachers in the state system demoralises us all.

Now, more than ever, as the gap between haves and have-nots yawns ever wider, we owe a decent education to all our children, not just those whose parents have the energy – or the leisure – to work our subtly layered state system. "History," according to H G Wells, "is the race between education and catastrophe." Right now, right here, I'd say catastrophe was streaking ahead.

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