Soulless schools cursed by league tables and dominated by "formulaic" exams are squeezing the lifeblood out of education, leading headteacher and political commentator Anthony Seldon will warn tomorrow.
The 21st-century obsession with teaching "facts" harks back to Thomas Gradgrind's utilitarian values in Dickens's Hard Times, he will say in a hard-hitting lecture to the College of Teachers. The result is a system that stifles imagination, individuality and flair.
In an extraordinary indictment of the national examination system, Dr Seldon, master of Wellington College and biographer of former prime minister Tony Blair, will claim that we are forgetting the very purpose of education. "Many parents, many teachers, will recognise it. Schools need to be liberating places, but it is very hard to do it with the utter throttling, choking straitjacket of the national examination system curriculum," he told the Observer
In Britain, he advocates a severe cut-back of external testing and examinations, which he claims have increased because of a lack of trust of schools, heads and teachers.
One option would be banishing national external exams until the age of 18, as they do in the United States. He also argues that GCSEs and A-levels, should be "swept away" in favour of exams, such as the International Baccalaureate, with its primary years, middle years, and diploma-level programmes.
Schools are "dancing to Gradgrind's drum-beat of facts, facts, facts more than ever", he will say in his inaugural lecture on his appointment as professor of education to the College of Teachers. And the spectres of the Victorian Gradgrind and his unimaginative but aptly named schoolteacher, Mr M'Choackumchild, still "strut the classrooms of the world".
School authorities, schools and teachers are now valued for one thing alone: their success at achieving exam passes, says Seldon, who introduced happiness classes to Wellington College, one of Britain's leading public schools. "We have embraced dullness and so close are we to it, we do not even see what has happened," he will tell the college.
He will also criticise faith schools, claiming "all too often they have narrowed, not opened, children's minds and hearts".
In Britain, universities wield huge power over the sixth-form curriculum, yet do not encourage students to stretch themselves beyond their A-level requirements, he will allege. "A tutor of admissions at an Oxford college recently admitted to one of my colleagues at Wellington: 'We are not looking for broad-achieving and rounded students at this college. In fact , we are not rounded people ourselves.' "
University and school teachers are not themselves to blame, he will argue. But, he will add, the rigid system is having a negative impact on pupils and university students: "They are showing more signs of depression, eating disorders, self-harming, and alcohol/drug abuse, than at any point in recorded history. But they also have better resources, more computers, better buildings, and more money in their pockets than at any point in their history.
"What has been lost? Why has affluence and knowledge not brought us wonderful schools and remarkable universities?"
He will claim that schools have concentrated on a very narrow definition of intelligence: the logical and the linguistic, at the expense of cultural, physical, social, personal, moral and spiritual intelligence. He will add that we should be asking: "Not how intelligent is a child but rather, how is the child intelligent?"
Seldon will argue the case for bringing back playing fields, placing orchestras and music at the heart of the curriculum, and offering dance, physical exercise, outdoor adventure and challenge to everyone.
League tables are "the biggest curse", and have inflicted more damage on British education than anything else, he will claim. The well-being of students needs to be taken "far more seriously", and school sizes should be cut.
"Dickens's message is as timely and urgent for us in 2009 as it was in 1854," Seldon will argue. "It is that soulless, loveless, desiccated education damages children for a lifetime. Education should be an opening of the heart and mind. That is what education means; it is this, or it is nothing."
He will conclude: "Walk on every head teacher, inspector and every local and central bureaucrat who has squeezed the lifeblood out of education."