CHILDREN should take their first steps towards reading and writing from the age of three, ministers said this week.
Schools minister Margaret Hodge and chief inspector Chris Woodhead threw their weight behind plans for a more formal pre-school curriculum, despite concerns that it could de-motivate young children.
Speaking at the launch of an inspection report on nursery education, they said that play should be "purposeful" and that the days of "colouring, cutting and pasting" are over.
"I don't accept, as some from advantaged backgrounds seem to be arguing, that we are being over-formal," said Mrs Hodge.
"If the well-to-do expected these standards of attainment, how could the government deny them to poorer children?" Children should be able to count to 10, write their own names and spell simple words by the end of their first year in school.
Mr Woodhead attacked the "sterile" debate about whether nursery education should lean towards "play-based" learning or a more formal approach, and called for a balance.
But he also said: "One clear finding from the inspection ... is that four-year-olds enjoy and benefit from structured learning."
The Government's proposals have met fierce opposition. The heads of 16 of the 18 nurseries picked out as "beacons" of best practice by the Government have described them as unsuitable, while the Association of Teachers and Lecturers claims that young children are under increasing stress.
Wendy Scott, chief executive of Early Education, said this week that ministers are listening to "ill-informed and potentially very damaging advice". The importance of creativity was being ignored.
Twelve months ago Mrs Hodge herself warned against the dangers of hot-housing toddlers when she was chair of the all party Commons Education Select Committee.
This week's report by the Office for Standards in Education found that two-thirds of the nurseries and playgroups identified as having serious weaknesses last year have now shown improvements.
According to OFSTED this demonstrates the importance of inspection in pushing up educational standards.
It found that independent nurseries emphasise structured teaching. By contrast, local authority nurseries concentrate more heavily on children's personal and social developments.
Local authority nurseries are also ahead in encouraging children to use their initiative, says the report.