Headmaster Barnaby Lenon attacked "worthless" qualifications
The head of a top independent school says poor children are in danger of being deceived by "worthless qualifications".
Headmaster of Harrow School, Barnaby Lenon, said pupils could be misled over the value of "high grades in soft subjects".
He said the scrapping of O-levels and CSEs in 1988 led to rapidly falling education standards at the age of 16.
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker attacked the comments as "frankly astonishing".
A-levels and GCSES had been shown to be "robust, rigorous and well-respected," said Mr Coaker.
The Harrow head said it was wrong to let pupils believe that taking "soft" subjects would bring them a top job.
"If we want the brightest children from our poorest homes to fulfil their potential we must not deceive them with high grades in soft subjects or allow them to believe that going to any old university to read any subject is going to be the path to prosperity, because it's not," he said.
"So let us not deceive our children, and especially children from poorer homes with worthless qualifications so that they become like the citizens of Weimar Germany or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe carrying their certificates around in a wheelbarrow, or produce people like those girls in the first round of X Factor who tell us they want to be the next Britney Spears but they can't sing a note."
He warned that making social mobility the aim of England's education system could easily lead to "dumbing down" of qualifications.
He said he had been teaching in 1988 when CSEs and O-levels were abolished in favour of GCSEs and that standards of education at 16 "fell at that moment".
This had brought implications for A-levels and universities.
After the publication of a report into social mobility earlier this week, former minister Alan Milburn called for "a second great wave of social mobility" like that of the 1950s and 1960s.
The report warned that people entering careers such as medicine, law and journalism were increasingly likely to be from more affluent families.
Currently 75% of judges and 45% of senior civil servants are privately educated.
The report's authors called for wider access to universities, better careers advice to raise pupils' aspirations and more extra-curricular activity for state school pupils.
'Blurring of the lines'
The head of the Independent Schools Council David Lyscom, who was also at Friday's conference of 100 head teachers from the state and private sectors, said the key to social mobility was raising standards in the maintained sector.
"It should be a bottom-up process," he said.
"We should not be asking universities and professions to doctor their application criteria in order to favour a lower academic standard just because someone appears to come from a disadvantaged background.
"There has been a blurring of the lines and it is not just the rich and privileged people who send their children to independent schools.
"Top state schools are usually in middle class areas which people have paid to move in to and in the independent sector we have an increasing number of pupils receiving means-tested bursaries."
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said: "These comments are quite frankly astonishing. It's easy to make sweeping, rhetorical flourishes about so-called 'soft' subjects - but it is wrong to ignore the hard work of tens of thousands of teachers and pupils and misrepresent the state of education in this country.
"Time and again A-levels and GCSEs have been shown to be robust, rigorous and well-respected - and we are strengthening them so they further stretch and challenge pupils.
"The new independent exam regulator, Ofqual, has tough powers to police the system and maintain the standards of qualifications whatever the subject."