The UK's education system has "lost its way", a leading headmistress said today.
Schools are mired in a tick box culture and forced to "jump through hoops" to meet exam targets, as politicians focus more on results and inspections than teaching and learning, according to Gillian Low, president of the Girls' Schools Association (GSA).
And she warned that teenagers were under intense pressure - from the education system, where the drop of just one grade at GCSE could cost them a place at a top university, and from today's celebrity culture and the demand to look good.
Addressing the GSA's annual conference in Manchester today, Mrs Low heaped blame on previous Governments for burdening schools with new initiatives.
She said: "Am I unusual in thinking that Education UK has lost its way over recent years? This is not the fault of schools, but of past Government initiatives."
Mrs Low, who is also headmistress of The Lady Eleanor Holles School in Hampton, Middlesex, said she hoped the new Government was seeking to address the problem, but added there was "much work to be done."
"There seems to me to have been a national shift over recent years to a perceived emphasis on examinations rather than education; on structures rather than students; inspection rather than inspiration; on specifications rather than scholarship; compliance rather than common sense; and testing rather than teaching," she said.
"The result at a national level has been a distortion of purpose and outcomes. We have seen, for example, the negative effects of the pressure of league tables, of the hoop-jumping assessment objectives of examinations, and of the tedious, time-consuming, tick-box regulatory regime, which shifts and complicates constantly.
"It is not that inspection and testing and so on should not have their due place: it is a question of proportion. At a time of such economic pressure and competition for university places and jobs, that balance can come under even greater strain and scrutiny."
Mrs Low said she was concerned that young people were under "unprecedented pressure", citing UNICEF research from 2007 which rated the wellbeing of the UK's children and teenagers the lowest of 21 rich nations.
Youngsters are facing twin pressures from the education system and society in general, she said.
"We must not underestimate the increasing pressure posed by the education system itself: consider, for example, the endless testing, and the introduction of the A* at A levels, and the consequently higher hurdles for some top universities, together with the devaluing of the A.
"And consider too the A* at GCSE - just one mistake on a bad day, at just 16, that brings an A* grade down to an A and it's no go at certain universities for you! And what about the increasingly intense competition for university places and the huge debts our future undergraduates are likely to incur?
"And then, from society more generally, they face the celebrity culture, the pressure to look good, the insecurity of some families, the dangers of the internet, the threat of global terrorism, economic uncertainty, the challenge of finding work, the financial inability to leave home and set up independently, concerns about the environment, global competition."
Everything today's teenagers do is geared towards their future study and career, Mrs Low said, with young people no longer able simply to take gap years before university to broaden their horizons.
She rejected calls by Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the university admissions service Ucas to rename the gap year to the "bridging year".
Ms Curnock Cook previously said that students should use the year to "enhance their attractiveness" to universities.
But Mrs Low said: "In the current climate of competition for university places, I can of course understand the rationale for her advice, but must we really forget in entirety travelling to, say, Asia or South America, contributing to local communities in worthwhile ways, the buzz of adventure and discovery, making great friends and experiencing life around the world?
"Can they not be carefree, be young, for even a short time, and in that time, develop the confidence and resilience they will so badly need, broaden their interests, grow up and experience life independent of their parents?"
She added: "We must be careful not to squash the natural idealism, the sense of adventure and the innate passion of young people into utilitarian boxes, where everything must be 'strategic', 'focused' and 'targeted', however difficult the times. Society must remember just how precious, and vulnerable, youth is, and protect it."