Every nursery in England should have a qualified early years teacher to help toddlers develop skills like speech and language, a children’s charity says.
Save the Children says pre-schoolers can be “set back decades” if their brains are not adequately stimulated before they start formal schooling.
It says early years teachers can assist children and parents with learning.
Ministers say they are making major investments in the sector, working with the profession to improve its status.
To become an early years teacher, candidates need a degree and at least a GCSE C grade in English, maths and science. They have to pass professional tests in numeracy and literacy and complete a period of initial teacher training.
The Save the Children report, Lighting Up Young Brains, is written in conjunction with the Institute of Child Health at University College London and highlights pre-school years as a “critical opportunity” for the brain to develop key skills.
The report suggests the government should make playtime “brain time” under the guidance of a qualified early years teacher.
The charity says failure to properly stimulate toddlers’ brains during nursery years could set them back for decades.
Save the Children claims government figures show almost 130,000 children in England last year were falling behind with language abilities before they even reached school.
This means six children in every reception class struggled with their early language skills, it says.
It warns that failure to develop good language skills can leave children struggling to learn in the classroom and unable to catch up with their peers.
For its research, the charity also conducted a survey of 1,000 parents and found that almost half had low expectations for their child’s early learning.
Of the 1,000 parents from England surveyed, 47% said they hoped their child would know 100 words by their third birthday – but this is only half the recommended number.
And 56% of parents did not think they had enough help and advice to understand their child’s early learning.
Nursery staff skills
A Department for Education review of early years staff, carried out by Prof Cathy Nutbrown in 2012, found concerns about literacy and numeracy skills among workers in England.
In January 2013, former childcare minister Elizabeth Truss introduced the training of early years teachers, in an attempt to boost their status.
But the measures do not mean early years teachers have qualified teacher status (QTS), like those in primary and secondary schools, instead they have early years teacher status (EYTS).
The DfE says the number of graduates currently in the early years workforce is rising.
“Between 2008 and 2013, the proportion of full day care staff with a degree or higher increased from 5% to 13%,” a spokeswoman said.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said while a graduate-led workforce could improve learning, nurseries needed better funding to pay better qualified staff.
“Without the funding needed to enable providers to pay graduate-level wages, this ambition, while admirable, will be impossible to achieve in practice.
“What’s more, it’s important to remember that being a good early years practitioner is about more than just having certain academic qualifications – experience, a caring disposition and crucially, an in-depth understanding of child development are all vital and these valuable attributes should not be overlooked.”
The authors of the Save the Children report say the early years are vital for children’s development and should be treated as a priority.
Torsten Baldeweg, professor of neuroscience and child health at UCL’s Institute of Child Health, said: “It is precisely this period where we have explosive brain growth, where most of the connections in the brain are formed.
“And we know that if these connections are not formed they, to variable degrees, will suffer longer-term consequences to their physical, cognitive but also emotional development.
“That’s perhaps one of the most important lessons we’ve learned from these studies – that these early years are absolutely critical. Much more must be done to boost children’s early learning.”
“Toddlers’ brains are like sponges, absorbing knowledge and making new connections faster than at any other time in life,” said Save the Children’s director of UK poverty, Gareth Jenkins.
“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.”
Childcare Minister Sam Gyimah, said: “This government is raising the bar and making a significant investment in the early years sector, working closely with the profession to help improve its status.
“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.
“We know that 80% of children are achieving the expected communication and language skills by age five – an increase of eight percentage points since 2013. But we are determined to go further.”