The think-tank says the Government should shift money spent on further and higher education to the early years, where there is sound evidence that every pound spent makes a real difference to a child's life chances. Vidhya Alakeson, author of the report, entitled Too Much, Too Late, wrote in Nursery World last week: "We underestimate the potential contribution of high-quality early education and care to long-term improvements in the attainment of disadvantaged children.
"At the same time, we over-estimate the extent to which the cost of staying on until 18 acts as a barrier to the less affluent participating in further and higher education."
The SMF recommends that the pound;3,000 cap on tuition fees should be lifted, arguing that poor GCSE results are a much bigger block to socially deprived students' university ambitions than tuition fees. And high-quality nursery education will help lead to better GCSE results. To support this point, a report for The Prince's Trust last week showed that local authorities in the most disadvantaged areas were making the least progress in reducing the number of pupils leaving school with no GCSEs.
I suspect the SMF's logical advice to shift spending from the middle classes to a universal service for young children will not be heeded, especially at election time. Universities are such an emotive subject for middle-class voters. And it is not just the cost of tuition. The higher the level of education, the higher its status in the wider world. Parents may be more involved in nursery and primary school, but the quality of a secondary school or university is seen to matter more.
This, SMF figures show, is reflected in government spending. In 2003, the UK spent pound;1,800 per child under five, pound;3,200 per child in primary school, pound;4,000 per secondary pupil and pound;5,300 on HE students. At the same time, university students only paid 25 per cent of the costs of their degree, while parents of under-fives paid 45 per cent of education and care.
The SMF also says money could be saved from ineffective classroom-based programmes aimed at getting young people into work. These are unlikely to arouse the sort of passion that is attached to university fees. The Government has pledged pound;125 million to improve the qualifications of early years staff - but who will pay the higher salaries that well-qualified workers deserve?
So here are some more figures to think about: the average salary of the country's 100,000 early years workers is pound;7,800, compared with Pounds 22,622 for a primary teacher. Half do not have a childcare qualification.
If they all did, what would they be worth, and what should they be paid?
DH Any thoughts? Write to email@example.com