The next government should focus on the quality of care and education received by young children, say campaigners.
Politicians have concentrated on increasing the quantity of free childcare available but its quality is crucial, they say.
In particular, funds should be targeted at quality provision for the poorest children, says the British Association for Early Childhood Education.
They deserve more than good “care”, says an open letter from the group.
“They need high quality, professionalised early educators,” the letter argues.
“The evidence shows that children who benefit most from high quality early years provision are those whose families are struggling in the most challenging economic circumstances,” says the letter.
It adds that the “substantial” economic and social benefits of good early education “are demonstrable for all society”.
The group welcome the focus by politicians on the accessibility and affordability of childcare for working parents but say there needs to be more emphasis on the quality of the care and education provided.
They are keen to point out this is not about the “schoolification” of early years.
Instead they argue for a “suitably trained workforce capable of sensitively stimulating, challenging and extending these young children’s capabilities in an atmosphere which is caring, responsive and attentive to their needs”.
So the next government should work both to increase the number of hours of childcare available for working parents but also on “upskilling” the early years workforce “to create a graduate-led profession able to give children the best possible start in life”, they argue.
The association’s chief executive, Beatrice Merrick, said: “Politicians of all parties clearly think offering more hours of free childcare will appeal to parents, but they need to look rigorously at the evidence of whether that is good use of scarce public funds.
“One clear lesson from every previous expansion of early years provision is that quality does not keep up with quality when the sector is pressured to grow too fast.”
The current system entitles three and four-year-olds in England to 15 free hours of nursery or childcare a week.
The Liberal Democrats say protecting funding from “cradle to college” is a “red line” issue for them while the Conservatives say they will increase the number of free hours to 30 a week, and Labour to 25 hours.
Policy guide: Education
This election issue includes funding for schools, university tuition fees and early years education.
The association’s president, Prof Tony Bertram, said: “This election has seen promises to increase the number of hours of childcare for working families, and much less discussion about the quality of early education, especially for the most disadvantaged children.
“Every child has the right to the best possible start in life, including high quality care and education delivered by a well-qualified workforce.
“This may cost a little more, but all the evidence shows that it is an investment not a cost, with beneficial impacts on the educational achievement and wellbeing of our poorest children.”