British teenagers can get a GCSE and A-level in English without having read Charles Dickens, Jane Austen or Charlotte Bront .
The most popular GCSE exam in the subject, taken by nearly 400,000 pupils last year, offers questions on one of eight novels, including Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and The Catcher in the Rye, but no 19th-century text.
The reading list for the AQA board's exam was highlighted by Julia Parry, of St Martin-in-the-Fields high school for girls in south London. She asked a conference at London's Somerset House: "Why does it not include any classics?"
Ms Parry, deputy head of English, said that there is no requirement in AQA's leading A-level to study a pre-20th-century novel.
Anne Fine, the former children's laureate, said: "This is a real sign of dumbing down. Many of the books which are put in front of children nowadays simply do not merit the amount of time which is spent on them."
Several teachers said the real problem was the dominating influence of exams.
John Carey, emeritus professor of English at Oxford university, who chaired the conference, said: "To my mind, the 19th-century is a great period for the English novel."
Michael Morpurgo, the current children's laureate, said: "The wider that young people read, the better. The list should include 20th-century classics, but also 19th-century novels."
Ms Parry said: "My suspicion is that the exam board thinks 21st-century children, especially those from the inner-city, are not capable of understanding classic novels.
"This is downright patronising. If you withhold great writing from your pupils, you are guilty of social exclusion... of impoverishing them culturally."
But she denied that her comments were elitist, and said her school has high numbers of girls on free meals.
The AQA's list of books also needed freshening up with modern favourities, including Nick Hornby's About a Boy, she said.
Bethan Marshall of King's college, London university, agreed that the list signified a "slightly patronising" attitude towards pupils. Those from all backgrounds should be given the opportunity to study the classic works of literature, she said.
Several teachers said that another problem was funding. An AQA source said schools had been consulted in the past about changing the list, but had resisted it because of the expense of replacing textbooks.
The source added: "If you tried to remove Of Mice and Men or Lord of the Flies from the list, there would be blood on the streets. Schools want what they've got in the stock cupboard. Every school has 200 of these books."
An AQA spokeswoman said that GCSE pupils did have the chance to study 19th-century novels as part of their coursework, though this is worth only 10 per cent of the exam.
Other A-levels offered by the board give pupils a chance to study authors such as Dickens, Emily Bront and Jane Austen, the spokeswoman said.
She denied that the board took a patronising attitude.
"With around 400,000 pupils taking this exam, we have to cater for the entire ability range," she said."