Primary schools are no place for children as young as three and may be unsuitable for four-year-olds, a report by the think-tank Politeia said this week.
Expanding the present pre-school system - based on "herding" tiny children into primary schools, could well harm pupils' social and academic future, said Sheila Lawlor, its director.
She called on the Government to stop spending public money on providing universal nursery education for three and four-year-olds and spend it instead on children aged five and over.
She also proposed that the Government give parents an allowance to spend on the form of pre-schooling they judge best for their child and to encourage different types of service on continental or other lines.
Dr Lawlor based her conclusions on an international comparison of pre-school provision in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the US, Japan and New Zealand and on contributions by Politeia's three "education commissioners": former TES editor Caroline St John-Brooks, former chief inspector Chris Woodhead and Sig Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Dr St John-Brooks says Britain's unusually young school starting age of five is too early and that the pre-school curriculum places too much emphasis on formal skills which are often inappropriate at this age, especially for boys.
Instead, she proposes a starting age of six preceded by two years' of full-time pre-school education. This would be provided in "a network of small, intimate institutions" that would encourage active play and physical skills. The state could fund places in both state and private schools.
But Mr Woodhead takes issue with the view that children in continental Europe do better because they start formal schooling later. He said: "The more likely explanation is that expectations of what children can and should ... do as they move through the primary years are higher, that more formal methods of whole-class teaching are the norm, and that a long tail of underachievement does not, as a consequence, develop," he said.
Let us play, Friday magazine
"Comparing Pre-School Standards" is available from Politeia, 22 Charing Cross Road WC2H OQP at pound;10