Countries such as Hungary and Switzerland, and Flemish-speaking Belgium, are more successful in teaching literacy and numeracy because formal teaching of the three Rs does not start until children are six or seven, the research suggests.
A two-year study for Channel 4's Dispatches, to be shown on Thursday, calls into question the Government's strategy for early-years education.
Last week Stephen Byers, the schools standards minister, promised that by September every four-year-old would have a nursery, playgroup or school place. The Government believes that effective pre-school education is vital to raising standards.
Early-years experts have long argued that starting school too young is damaging, but the latest international evidence suggests that the effect may be even more dramatic than they suppose. The Dispatches study argues that the countries most successful in teaching children the basics have a structured curriculum up to the age of six or seven which does not include reading, writing or arithmetic. Instead, children are taught skills such as speaking, paying attention, listening, and using their memory.
When they transfer to more formal activities they make rapid progress because they have been well prepared. Whereas parents in Britain are anxious for children to start on the formal process of reading and writing as young as possible, those elsewhere are being persuaded of the advantages of waiting. Swiss parents can choose not to send their children to school at six and 15 per cent wait until they are seven.
Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University said the idea that starting formal lessons too early disadvantaged children was a very attractive hypothesis and could help explain underperformance, including why girls do better than boys. It was known, for instance, that countries where the gap between boys and girls is as wide as it is here - New Zealand, Eire and Trinidad - also start reading early. New Zealand had other problems in common with Britain, such as a wide gap between children at the top and bottom and poor performance in literacy.
However, starting reading and writing later did not mean that nothing should be done to prepare children for education, he said. Some teachers in Britain had misinterpreted the work of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, to mean that children would automatically reach a stage when they are ready to learn. He said: "We can learn from the experience of other countries that you can get children ready to learn. Here, some children are being let down by being forced to read and add up too soon. Others are being let down because they are being left to their own devices."
Professor David Burghes of Exeter University, who tested children in 17 countries in maths over a three-year period, said: "This has to be researched very carefully. Certainly Hungary did much better than this country in our research study. They start school when they are six and begin quite slowly, looking at pictures, observing and doing practical tasks. Before that they have kindergarten which is very much about listening and concentration.
"We are the only country which has tests for seven-year-olds. It is worrying because it means that teachers are bound to want to push their children as fast as possible."
Professor Margaret Brown of King's College, London, and a member of the Government's numeracy task force which reported last week said: "To some extent I buy the idea that we teach children formally too early but it is a mistake to say that early-years education here is a disaster. Most reception-class teachers would say that most of their objectives are social. In maths, what is impressive about some other countries is not that they delay formal teaching but that they do lots of mental arithmetic."
Sue Owen of the National Children's Bureau said: "British nursery education is well known worldwide because it has built up a curriculum which addresses children's needs and is very different from the formal structures of school. There is a wide variety of early-years education in Britain ranging from private nursery schools which teach three-year-olds to read and write to state nursery classes and playgroups which usually have a much less formal approach. Ministers are conducting a quality-assurance consultation on the early years, and piloting centres of excellence which will bring together services for the under-fives."Reuse content