The influence of social media, games consoles and mobile phones on pupils’ lives is one of the biggest crises facing the modern education system, it is claimed.
David Boddy, chairman of The Society of Heads, which represents more than 100 independent schools, says the country is in the grip of a “national attention deficit syndrome” because children spend so much time plugged into screen-based entertainment.
In a speech today, he will warn that children are now unable to concentrate “for more than the shortest of periods”.
The decline is being fuelled by a breakdown in traditional family units, with children expending large amounts of energy being pulled between divorced parents, he says.
Mr Boddy, headmaster of St James Senior Boys’ School in Ashford, Surrey, also claims that pupils are losing the art of “proper concentrated conversation” because they are so used to communicating with friends via Facebook.
Speaking to the association’s annual conference, he will call on private schools to focus on a number of key priorities needed to improve the education system over the next 20 or 30 years, including “cultivating every child’s powers of concentration”.
He will tell the conference, which will be attended by the Princess Royal, that schools should focus on developing pupils’ creativity and emotional awareness instead of a “narrow” emphasis on improving exam results.
The comments follow those made by on Sunday by Richard Harman, the headmaster of Uppingham and chairman of the Boarding Schools Association, who claimed that teachers and parents risked causing damage to children’s long-term development by hothousing them to pass tests at a young age.
Mr Boddy, a former journalist, who acted as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary between 1979 and 1983, claims that Britain’s independent schools are among the best in the world.
He warns that this breeds the “politics of envy” in those parents who want the best education for their children but cannot afford the fees.
But addressing the society’s conference in south Wales, he will claim that schools need to use their independence to respond to a series of challenges facing the modern education system, including combating the influence of modern technology and family breakdown.
“Every teacher knows this: the real crisis in education today is the inability of children to concentrate for more than the shortest of periods,” he says.
“There is a national attention deficit syndrome and it is by no means limited to medicated children, of whom there are far too many. We need to understand why this is.
“What part does being perpetually plugged into iPods and the like play in this? What part does family becoming dysfunctional play in this?
“What part does endless hours of screen-watching play in this? What part does not learning how to write with a pen play in this?”
Mr Boddy suggests that children are also struggling to make face-to-face conversation with their peers because of the influence of social networking websites.
“Children think they have friends when Facebook tells them so, but they are losing the art of proper concentrated conversation; they are losing the ability to respond to seeing a need because they are not aware enough that the need is there,” he says.
In his speech, he warns that schools have to focus on much more than exam preparation.
Mr Boddy says heads must take action to “ensure that we do not have to say sorry to a generation of young people; to apologise to them in 20 or 30 years from now that we did not meet their needs because our outlook was too narrow and too short-sighted”.
“What part have we played in allowing the idea that only academic success is a measure of human capability?” he says. “That a definition of a ‘good’ school is one that rises to the top of exam league tables and the definition of a ‘bright’ pupil is one that gets A* grades?”