The report, by the Royal Society of Arts, says that part-time schooling should be compulsory from the age of three, but full-time school should not start until children are six.
Among the other controversial recommendations made by Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the RSA, is a suggestion that parents should forfeit the right to draw child benefit if they refuse to go to parenting classes. Sir Christopher said that many parents needed help. 'There is plenty of evidence that some of us are not performing as well as parents as we should be. We need as a society to think what we can do to help.'
The Start Right report, which includes a detailed study of the benefits of nursery education, contrasts sharply with government claims that while there is room for improvement, most children are already receiving a good pre-school education.
Nine out of ten attend some form of playgroup or nursery class, according to government figures, but the report suggests that more than two-thirds of these children are receiving a sub-standard education. The finding has infuriated voluntary organisations such as the Pre-school Playgroups' Association, which provides part-time and full-time care for more than three-quarters of a million children.
It says that between 60 and 80 per cent start primary school before they are five and about half go to a playgroup at some time, while just 25 per cent go to nursery school.
Professor Kathy Sylva, a member of the advisory group on the report, said a good nursery class must offer a balanced curriculum, properly trained teachers, small groups and a partnership with parents. Anything less would not have the lasting desirable effects which could be seen in pupils who had received the best in nursery education. 'We are arguing not just for any old pre-school education, because research studies show that isn't going to have a lasting impact. We are arguing for high-quality provision,' she said.
The report says that the Government should aim to have a new system of pre-school education in place by 1999 and that it should be based on family centres where children and their parents could learn together. The cost would be about pounds 1bn a year, most of which would be recovered by making education for five-year-olds part-time only.
A review of recent research on nursery education, carried out by Professor Sylva, showed that its effects could be dramatic.
A US study compared a group of disadvantaged youngsters who had a good pre-school education with another group who had not. Almost half of those who had been to nursery school found jobs when they left school, compared with less than one-third of those who had not.
By the time they were 27 years old, a quarter of those who had not been to nursery school had been arrested at least five times. For those who had received nursery education, the figure was 7 per cent.
Leading article, page 17
THE MAIN FINDINGS
Full-time school should not start until six.
Part-time nursery education should be compulsory from three.
Child benefit could be linked to parents' attendance at parenting classes.
Nursery schooling should be provided at 'family centres' where parents could learn alongside their children.
All nursery school teachers should receive a full professional training.
A new code of conduct should govern all pre-school education.
The new system should be in place by 1999.