Peter Moss, senior research officer at London University's Thomas Coram Research Unit, called for new legislation to tackle "inadequate and irrationally organised" early childhood services. His proposals will be published next month in Transforming Nursery Education, a book written with Helen Penn, a senior research officer at the London Institute of Education.
He said one reason so little had changed in 20 years was that successive governments had failed to develop an informed interest in early childhood services.
"Instead, we have a history of long periods of neglect interspersed by occasional, narrowly focused policy initiatives that have their roots in other debates and discourses, but not early years - for example, the early childhood parts of the Children Act, the child-care disregard, and most recently nursery vouchers," he told 200 delegates at the conference, on unifying services for under-eights.
He outlined six steps to the conference, organised by Infolog Training and the London borough of Southwark, as "crucial to a comprehensive early childhood service over a period of 10 years".
They were: a national early childhood services policy; an Act which will define the early childhood service as the first and separate stage of education; administrative responsibility transferred to education authorities at national and local level; a strategy on funding; a staffing overhaul with a new qualification of "early childhood teacher"; and local early childhood services plans.
Moss and Penn propose a 10-year plan under which funding for children up to six moves towards 20 per cent of education spending, instead of the current 10 per cent.
Compulsory school should start at six to be brought into line with most of the rest of Europe. They believe the early starting age in the UK has adverse effects for children and early childhood services.
The Start Right report published by the Royal Society of Arts in March 1994 also wanted the compulsory school age to be raised from five to six. It recommended that the funds the change would release should be used to educate all three to five-year-olds.
Moss and Penn's local plans would include new ways of delivering school-based services to replace the nursery classes at present operating within primary schools.
Mr Moss concluded: "These proposals may seem drastic and unrealistic. Yet when we look back at changes in many walks of life that have been introduced over the past 20 years, they seem less so. Indeed, we are almost at the point of no return, with the accumulative results of so much neglect and ill-considered initiatives making reform increasingly difficult."
Margaret Hodge, Labour's under-fives inquiry co-ordinator, also urged integration of services for under-eights. She said Labour would use the Pounds 185 million of new money the Government had poured into vouchers to make nursery education an entitlement for all.
She also said Labour would develop a "climbing frame" instead of the traditional ladder of qualifications, which would value the qualifications of all early-years workers.
Of Labour's proposals for the under-fives, she said : "I think this is at least a two-term programme for Labour. It is not something we can achieve in one term and it is not just about money."
Others spoke of their authorities' decisions to unify services for the under-eights. Dennis Simpson, Southwark's director of social services, said of his authority's 1985 decision: "It was as much to do with hearts and minds as administration."
Maggie Smith, head of early years for Manchester City Council, said the councillors' vision had transformed Manchester's under-eights services. However, Bonnie Ure, head of Southwark's early-years service, issued a dire warning: "Blood there was on the carpet in various stages, and most of it was mine."