Scotland, in common with most other European countries, is falling down in the education and care of its youngest children, according to a major new report.
It claims that the majority of European states are exacerbating the gap between the "haves and have-nots", as well as putting some children at risk.
The findings are a harsh reminder that, for all the Scottish Government's emphasis on the early years, the country lags well behind some of its European neighbours in the standard of provision for under-threes.
Working for Inclusion, a two-year study of 28 countries led by Children in Scotland, also argues that pre-school education should be universally available rather than targeted at poorer families, directly contradicting the advice of Labour MP Frank Field in his recent report for the Westminster Government on poverty and life chances.
Only six European countries - Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia and Latvia - have fully integrated early childhood education and care systems, with single departments taking full responsibility for all pre- school education, and single workforces for children from birth until school. Such systems are a key indicator of success in reducing child poverty and promoting social inclusion.
Four countries, including the UK, have partially integrated systems, with one group of staff working predominantly with children under three and another with older pre-school children.
When early childhood is not integrated, or only partially integrated, children under three get a poorer standard of care at a higher cost, and wealthier families are more than three times as likely to use formal services.
The workforce caring for children under three is "dominated by poorly- educated women in unstable, often temporary employment contracts, with poor pay and conditions, who become a group themselves at risk of social exclusion". Such staff sometimes provide "harmful care for the very young", but parents often have very little choice in who should look after their children.
The report states: "A country that chooses to move towards integration is choosing to shape its society rather than remain in thrall to traditional political structures that exacerbate inequality."
Nordic countries have the best record on early education and care, inequality and child well-being, although Slovenia has shown success is not unique to wealthy north Europeans, and administrations such as San Miniato in Italy prove local policies can make a difference.
The report dismisses the argument for services targeted at those most in need, made by "poverty tsar" Frank Field. It warns against budget cuts that move services further away from universal availability, as this would "increase the inequality of early childhood education and care".
Denmark is held up as an admirable case study: childbirth ensures a year of well-paid parental leave, which can be divided between parents, after which children have an entitlement to education and care.
The report provided "important lessons for governments at national and local level seeking to maximise investment in the early years", said Bronwen Cohen, chief executive of Children in Scotland and Working for Inclusion programme director.
Children and Early Years Minister Adam Ingram said: "It is clearly better to provide children and families with the best possible integrated support we can, than deal with the costly consequences of inaction later on."
Labour education spokesman Des McNulty argued that people "whose life chances are blighted by poverty deserve special consideration but we need to do what is best for all".
Working for Inclusion was funded by the European Community Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity, with support from the Scottish Government.