Children "from birth" to five will follow a new early years foundation stage which sets out what they should learn, under plans in the Government's Childcare Bill disclosed yesterday.
The new requirements, which will carry the same legal force as the national curriculum in schools, will also see children as young as three learn the basics of reading, writing and mathematics as the Government extends its literacy and numeracy strategies to even younger children.
Parents' groups said the plan was "absolute madness". Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "We are now in danger of taking away children's childhood when they leave the maternity ward.
"From the minute you are born and your parents go back to work, as the Government has encouraged them to do, you are going to be ruled by the Department for Education."
Ms Hughes described the Bill as "truly radical", saying: "This Bill is emblematic of the Government's third term objectives, combining radical reform of services with the focus on improving the life chances of all young children and especially the most disadvantaged."
The Childcare Bill will also require local authorities to ensure there are sufficient childcare places for working parents and that facilities are open for the hours families need them.
The new legislation will also tighten rules about who can provide child care as part of the Government's drive to create an affordable network of nurseries and childminders.
Ms Hughes said the Government had already increased childcare places by 80 per cent since 1997, and provided free part-time nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds.
But she added that more needed to be done to ensure that childcare provision matched parents' needs, and to improve the performance of children from deprived backgrounds.
She said the new curriculum was necessary because research had shown that children who received high-quality pre-school education and care went on to achieve the best results at primary school.
The new curriculum will replace a voluntary "good practice framework" for children up to three and a foundation stage for three- to five year-olds which became part of the national curriculum in 2002.
"What we want to establish is a coherent framework that establishes a programme for children from nought to five," she said. "It will be age relevant; we are not talking about making very young children sit and learn numbers and letters when it's not appropriate."
But nursery nurses warned that children could be damaged by starting formal education too early. Deborah Lawson, of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, said children in the UK already started school much earlier than most of their European counterparts. "It is important to find the right balance and not have unrealistic expectations of what young children can achieve," she said. "Research has indicated the dangers of introducing formal education too early as this can lead to disaffection in later years."
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