Ministers say five-year-olds with a "good" level of development should be able to understand the need for rules, read a range of familiar and common words and try to write for different purposes.
But a target of 50 per cent of children reaching this level nationally by 2008 is being reconsidered after 48 per cent of five-year-olds reached it last year.
Results among local authorities vary widely, partly due to how children are assessed as well as their differing abilities.
In Richmond-upon-Thames last year, 89 per cent of children were considered good at writing, compared to 28 per cent in Barking and Dagenham.
All of the 150 English authorities must declare how many five-year-olds they expect to reach a good level of development and how they will narrow achievement gaps.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told The TES the targets were not about testing but about measuring development. She said: "It is clear that (good development) makes a difference to how well children do in life. We are not talking about a national curriculum for babies or tests. We are talking about good play which clearly leads to better outcomes in life."
The targets are based on the foundation-stage curriculum which includes guidance such as helping children negotiate with each other while playing games. It is due to be merged with guidance for those working with under- threes, to become a single early- years foundation-stage curriculum, to be followed by everyone working with under- fives.
Consultation on the curriculum is due to start next month and it will be compulsory from 2008. Training will begin next year and include how to work with parents, professionals and the wider community. The curriculum is part of the Government's 10-year childcare strategy. It aims to give all parents access to affordable, high-quality childcare for children up to age 14 within the next four years. The aim is reduce child poverty by enabling parents to work and give children a good start in life.
There are now 800 children's centres combining early education and childcare. By the end of this year, a further 200 are due to open and 2,500 schools will have extended hours and be open from 8am to 6pm.
But there are fears that long hours in group childcare are not good for very young children. Steve Biddulph, childcare author, criticised the trend in The TES's sister publication, Nursery World. He said that in future "we will realise that if you want quality care it costs a great deal of money, and governments have to pay. Fewer and fewer parents will use long-hours care. Good nurseries will be an adjunct to parents rearing their children, and not a substitute for it."
The Government has said it is giving parents a choice. Since 1997 pound;17 billion has been spent on childcare and places have almost doubled to 1.2 million. Paid maternity leave is to be extended from six to nine months from next year.
Pilot projects have begun looking at extending free childcare to 12,000 two-year-olds in deprived areas.
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Choice for parents, the best start for children: making it happen.