'We owe it to our children to give them a head start in life. Fifteen minutes is not a big commitment, yet it could prove to be the most productive quarter-of-an- hour of the day that any of us spend with our children,' Mr Patten told a meeting of the Governing Bodies' Association.
'Teachers are having to pick up the pieces when children arrive at school for the first time with little or no familiarity with the printed word. This cannot be right.'
His comments were generally welcomed by members of the teaching profession yesterday, although Neville Bennett, of the education department at the University of Exeter, said they were a 'restatement of the obvious'. 'I'm pretty certain that most parents know the value of reading to their children,' he said.
Dr Greg Brooks, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, said 15 minutes was a good amount to recommend, as it would not overtax small children. Reading in the pre-school years was very important since research showed that, on average, the gap between children's attainment when they started school increased as they moved up the school.
Although Dr Brooks believed many parents were reading to children, he said other surveys indicated a substantial number of homes that contained no books. 'There is well-documented research which shows a direct correlation between the reading attainment of seven-year-olds and the number of books they have at home: the more books, the higher the attainment.'
In an interim report in 1991 by the National Association of Head Teachers, 38 per cent of heads surveyed estimated that more than 96 per cent of children starting school needed to be taught to read 'from scratch', suggesting a shortage of books at home.
Dr Peter Hannon, senior lecturer in education at the University of Sheffield, said libraries played a crucial role, since homes without books are often the poorest. But he said there were also other ways of helping children's literacy, for instance, by utilising the large volume of junk mail, catalogues, packaging and other print material which flows through homes.
'This kind of material can be interesting to children. If they see their parents making use of it, they are likely to want to do the same. Some parents don't realise how much reading and writing permeates everyday life: there are lots of learning opportunities apart from the more formal ones.'
Dr Brooks said schools could help parents by showing them the best techniques for reading with their children. Parents should move gradually from reading an entire story themselves to leaving gaps for the child to fill in, until the child was able to say, or read, most of the story. 'The child is much more likely to make the vital connection between print and meaning if he or she is already familiar with the story,' he said.