Poor pre-school education could set back toddlers for decades, says a new report from Save the Children.
The charity is calling for every nursery in the country to be led by a qualified early years’ teacher by 2020 to help children develop key skills such as speech and language.
In its scientific briefing report Lighting up Young Brains, Save the Children says that neuroscience shows how early language skills are intertwined with children’s brain development, with the period from age three to five being crucial.
It warned that failure to develop adequate language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up with their peers.
Government figures show that last year around 130,000 children – equivalent to six children in every reception class in England – had lower than expected language development at the end of reception.
Now the charity has teamed up with leading scientists and psychologists to emphasise the importance of learning in pre-school years as a "golden opportunity" for the brain to develop key skills.
The academics, including Dr Tanya Byron, are urging government action on the issue of nursery quality being overlooked in policy making.
Professor Torsten Baldeweg, professor of neuroscience and child health at the University College London’s Institute of Child health, said: “Why is it important to stimulate children before they go to school? It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed. We need input to maintain them for the rest of our lives.”
The charity said that a new poll of 1,000 parents found that 56 per cent of parents do not think they have enough help and advice to understand their child's early learning.
It also found that 64 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that children were being forced into education too early and should just be allowed to be children before they were five.
The charity recommends parents use a combination of talking, word games and singing with their children. This can stimulate children’s early language and communication skills, ensuring they have the building blocks for learning by the time they reach school.
"Toddler's brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than any other time in life," said Save The Children's director of UK poverty Gareth Jenkins.
"We've got to challenge the misconception that learning can wait for school, as, if a child starts their first day at school behind, they tend to stay behind.
"To tackle the nation's education gap, we need a new national focus on early learning to give children the best start – not just increasing free childcare hours, but boosting nursery quality to help support children and parents with early learning."
Sam Gyimah, the education and childcare minister, said the government had made "significant investment" in the early years sector.
"As a result salaries have increased, numbers of qualified staff have risen, the number of graduates in the workforce continues to rise, and a record number of providers are rated good or outstanding", he said.