The first analysis of the extent to which playgroups and nursery school and classes comply with the guidelines for state funding suggests around 30 per cent of institutions need to pay more attention to developing language and maths and children's understanding of the world.
Pre-school playgroups, which remain the largest provider for four-year-olds, are the least successful in promoting an education programme, mainly because of limited resources and factors such as staff experience and training.
The report says there is no evidence that the guidelines impose a formal curriculum that could be damaging for young children.
Nursery schools and classes are successful at developing personal and social skills and at least three-quarters successfully promote physical and creative development.
Of the 15,300 institutions that are least partially state-funded, 180 have been judged to have unacceptably low levels of provision and 40 have had their funding withdrawn. The future of the rest of the failing institutions is subject to either re-inspection or a decision by David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary.
Independent pre-preps score highest on the promotion of language and literacy (94.3 per cent); compared with 80.8 per cent in private nurseries; 73.9 per cent in private day nurseries; 65 per cent in local authority day nurseries and 54.3 per cent in playgroups.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents playgroups, says the report fails to focus on the need for adequate staffing ratios in reception classes. In addition, the alliance believes the report is negative about playgroups, as only 1.6 per cent were judged to be poor.
'The quality of education in institutions inspected under the nursery education funding arrangements' is free from the Office for Standards in Education on 0171 421 6800