Qualifications for childminders and nursery staff are failing to provide the knowledge and skills needed to care and teach young children, a Government-commissioned review has concluded.
The current system is too confusing, inconsistent and “lacks rigour”, according to a report by Professor Cathy Nutbrown.
She calls for a major revamp of the system, with all staff educated to A-level standard.
Students will also have to have English and maths to GCSE level before they begin an early education or childcare course.
In her review, Prof Nutbrown, an expert in early childhood education from Sheffield University, warns that “worrying trends” have developed in early years qualifications.
“Some current qualifications lack rigour and depth, and quality is not consistent,” her report says.
“I was concerned to find a considerable climate of mistrust in current early years qualifications, and anxiety, which I share on my reading of the evidence, that standards have in some respects declined in recent years.
“I am concerned that the current early years qualifications system is not systematically equipping practitioners with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to give babies and young children high quality experiences.”
Under the current system, nurseries and early years groups must be managed by someone who has a relevant Level 3 qualification - equivalent to A-levels, and at least half of the staff have to be educated to Level 2 - equivalent to GCSE at grade C or above.
But Prof Nutbrown argues that Level 2 is not good enough, and someone who only holds a qualification to this standard should not be considered qualified.
She recommends that Level 3 should become the minimum standard, with everyone working with pre-school children qualified to this level by September 2022.
Level 3 qualifications should also be tightened up to include more child development and play, special educational needs and disability among other topics.
Her report adds: “As a country we need to raise our expectations of what it means to work with young children, and attract the best people into the workforce.
“Literacy and mathematical abilities are essential for anyone working with our young children, so I am recommending that students must already hold Level 2 qualifications in English and mathematics before they begin a Level 3 early education or childcare course.”
Prof Nutbrown's final recommendations come just months after she warned in her interim report that colleges demand more qualifications for students training to look after animals than for those who will care for babies.
Speaking today, she said: “Every child deserves excellent early education and care, and every parent should be confident that their child is getting the best.
“Early education and care needs to support babies' and young children's all round well being and development. That is why I want the workforce to really understand child development, the importance of play, and have good English and maths skills.”
Children's Minister Sarah Teather said: "I warmly welcome Professor Nutbrown's thoughtful and thorough report.
"It takes a careful and measured look at the sector, and will be very useful in helping us to shape the future of the early years workforce.
"We need to attract bright people to the sector so that our young children get the best possible start in life - after all, they only get one chance."