Too many state schools are cramming their pupils with “worthless qualifications” to boost their position in exam league tables, a leading independent school head said today.
Barnaby Lenon, the headmaster of Harrow school, said that state schools were opting for “soft” A-level options for pupils which gave them no chance of getting into elite universities.
His comments were echoed by the shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove, when he addressed a conference of leading independent and state school heads in London.
Mr Gove quoted statistics showing the number of youngsters on free school meals sitting media studies at GCSE was greater that the combined number sitting physics, chemistry and biology.
Mr Lenon told the same conference: “Let us not deceive our children especially those from the poorest homes with worthless qualifications so that they become like citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, carrying their certificates around in a wheelbarrow.
“We are producing pupils like finalists in the The X Factor – they want to be the next Britney Spears but they can’t sing a note.”
Mr Lenon said one of the key reasons why independent school pupils dominated entry into top universities compared with comprehensive school pupils of similar ability was that they had been put in for “hard” A-levels.
Only 14 per cent of those who took A-levels were from fee-paying schools, whereas 39 per cent of those with three grade-A passes including chemistry and maths had attended private schools, as had 54 per cent of those with three As including a modern foreign language.
Mr Lenon also warned against giving top priority to improving social mobility as a government policy. It inevitably led to a “dumbing down” of standards, he argued. “The main aim should be to educate all children really well,” he added. “If we do this then social mobility will follow.”
Earlier, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ Treasury spokesman, questioned whether Britain was sending too many youngsters to universities. He argued they should be channelled into further education colleges to take apprenticeships instead.