While John Patten dismissed some of the findings of a Royal Society of Arts report as 'absurd', the Prime Minister's leading adviser on education, Nick True, promised to be at its launch. Its author, Sir Christopher Ball, the society's director of learning, said Downing Street had requested a copy at first-draft stage.
The report, Start Right, says part-time nursery education should be compulsory from the age of three and that children should not start school until they are six.
It suggests that child benefit could be withdrawn from parents who refuse to attend 'parenting' classes.
As revealed in the Independent on Tuesday, Mr Major's favoured option for increasing provision for the under-fives is to open all primary school reception classes to four-year-olds. But his officials appear to be taking the lead.
The Prime Minister's office denied that Mr Major had abandoned his commitment to nurseries for all.
In the Commons, Mr Major told Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader: 'We have made it perfectly clear that as and when resources are available, we shall move towards further nursery education, towards universal nursery education. The reports that may have excited your interest in one national newspaper were wrong.'
Mr Patten said in a radio interview yesterday that he and the Prime Minister had spoken with one voice on the issue, and that they wanted to see an increase in nursery provision when resources allowed. However, he did not agree with the findings in Sir Christopher's report.
'I have no intention at all of bringing forward plans for compulsory schooling for three- and four-year-olds as this report recommends. Equally, it recommends that formal schooling should start at six. I just think that's absurd and I think that's wrong.
'Nine out of 10 of our three- and four year-olds get nursery provision. I wish people would stop running down this country,' he said.
Sir Christopher's report has also been controversial among the advisory group that drew it up. Its members, including representatives from the Pre-school Playgroups Association (PPA), the Save the Children Fund (SCF) and the National Children's Bureau (NCB), have dissociated themselves from some findings.
Among them is Dr Gillian Pugh, director of the NCB's early childhood unit. She said forcing people to go to parenting classes could be counter-productive. 'Some parenting skills can be taught but only when parents are ready to learn, and only in ways that are acceptable to individuals.'
Michael Taylor, UK and European programmes director of the SCF, said compulsory nursery education was the wrong approach. 'Expansion of services for young children should be based on working with parents, rather than denying them a choice.'
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the PPA, described the report as 'very disappointing' and said its recommendations would increase the fragmentation of services for under-fives. 'It is important that any expansion of education for three and four year-olds should not be at the expense of younger
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