Critics express disbelief at plans to prescribe what is taught from birth - but childcare groups back new regime for the under-threes. Helen Ward reports.
A new national curriculum for babies and toddlers is to be introduced, it was announced this week.
From 2008, childminders and nurseries will be legally obliged to follow the "early years foundation stage" curriculum for children from birth until the age of five.
All three-year-olds in childcare already have to learn rudimentary maths, language and literacy. But the plan, part of the Childcare Bill, is the first time that the Government has prescribed what children should learn under the age of three.
The proposal was dismissed as "absolute madness" by the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.
Margaret Morrissey, its spokeswoman, said: "We are in danger of taking away children's childhood when they leave the maternity ward.
"From the minute you are born and your parents go back to work, as the Government has encourage them to do, you are going to be ruled by the department for education."
But Gill Haynes, chief executive of National Childminding Association, said: "We are delighted a new quality framework will be established that integrates care and learning for young children. So long as this framework is broad enough to reflect the many ways in which young children develop - it will reflect how most registered childminders and nannies already help the children they care for."
The early years foundation stage will be from birth to five. It brings together the existing optional guidance for under threes, called Birth to Three Matters, and the mandatory foundation stage guidance for children aged three to five.
Birth to Three Matters sets out how youngsters develop into confident, healthy children with good communication and learning skills.
It gives ideas of how to observe and encourage these aspects in children at four different stages of development, from the youngest babies who are 'lookers and communicators', through the stages of explorers (8 to 18 months), players (18 to 24 months) and pretenders (25 to 36 months) (see box, above).
Under the foundation stage, three to five year olds continue to learn from play-based activities and their progress is assessed in six broad areas including physical development, communication skills and mathematical skills.
Deborah Lawson, of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, said:
"It is important to find the right balance and not have unrealistic expectations of what young children can achieve.
"Research has indicated the dangers of introducing formal education too early as this can lead to disaffection in later years."
The new curriculum has been drawn up after research which has shown that high-quality early education helps children develop faster socially and academically.
Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, said the new curriculum will be appropriate for very young children.
An informal consultation on the new curriculum, initially known as the early development and learning framework, has already begun.
It will look at issues such as staffing ratios and what skills should be expected of five-year-olds as well as what educational opportunities children should have. It will be used to draw up proposals for the new curriculum and the formal consultation on this will begin in the spring.
* The new Bill also sets out the legal framework for extended schools.
Under the Bill, local education authorities have a duty to ensure that all parents of children aged three to 14 have access to a year-round childcare place from 8am to 6pm - either through extended schools, children's centres or another provider. However, it does not give parents the legal right to have access to childcare.
The Local Government Association said council tax or childcare bills may have to rise to implement the plan.