More than a third of parents in England with children under five don't know whether their nursery employs qualified early years teachers - staff trained specifically to support children's early learning and development and help those falling behind - a YouGov poll commissioned by Save the Children reveals today.
At the same time, research shows that last year alone, one in three started primary school falling behind their peers in areas like literacy and numeracy in part because they didn't have access to these teachers.
But the consequences won't end there: of those children who started behind, 7,400 will likely remain behind in English when they reach secondary school, and 5,900 will remain behind in maths - having potentially devastating consequences for the rest of their schooling and even their careers.
Government stats show that boys and poor children are worst affected, with boys 63% more likely to be behind as girls in language, and poor children 60% more likely to be behind than their peers from wealthier backgrounds.
Parents are concerned their own children could be at risk, according to the poll. More than a quarter (28%) worry their child will start primary school behind in literacy and numeracy, and more than half (51%) are worried about sending their child to a nursery without a qualified teacher, leading to calls for the government to invest urgently in the sector:
- Nearly three quarters (73%) of parents want the government to ensure all of England's nurseries have qualified teachers
- More than 80% think nurseries should help make sure children are ready for school
- More than 70% say they would rather send their child to a nursery with an early years teacher than one without
While all nurseries have staff who are trained to care for children, not all have a qualified early years teachers who are specialists, trained to help children develop their early language and numeracy skills through play, and to help struggling children catch up by the time they reach school.
Children in the North West without an early years teacher are almost 10% less likely to meet the expected levels of development when they start school compared to children who do have a teacher.
But currently, there is a huge shortage of 2,100 nursery teachers in the North West, and the number of applicants nationally are in decline as nurseries struggle with funding pressures and recruitment costs.
Save the Children, along with leading child development experts, is calling on the government to urgently address the shortage by investing in an early years teacher for every nursery, starting in the most deprived areas of the country.
Tesse, a mother of two said: "My daughter went to nursery with an early years teacher before primary school and I'm so glad she did - it made a huge difference to her language and attention skills and it also made her feel more confident.
"Starting reception behind their peers can be an anxious experience and potentially have life-long impacts, but I'm grateful that my daughter was able to start reception with great enthusiasm and ready to learn, which was in large part due to the help from a nursery that had an early years teacher."
Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, a Clinical Psychologist and expert from Channel Four's "Secret Life of Four Year Olds" programme said: "The early years of a child's life are without a doubt the most crucial for their learning and development, and likewise, where support for their learning makes the biggest difference.
"Their brains absorb and grow the most when they're little, learning everything from using words, phrases, and numbers, to understanding the world around them, and building healthy relationships.
"That's why early years teachers are so important - it's not about giving toddlers a formal education, but growing their minds through play and simple every day interactions that will give them the best start in life - and that's something all parents want for their children."
Kevin Watkins, Chief executive of Save the Children said: "It's just not acceptable that in this day and age, so many children in England are falling behind before they even set foot in primary school - leaving them at risk of staying behind throughout their school years and into the world of work.
"Nurseries do an incredible job nurturing our children, but financial constraints are leaving many of them struggling to hire the qualified early years teachers who help give children the skills and confidence they need to learn and grow.
"The evidence clearly shows the huge and transformational difference early years teachers can make for children. That's why we're calling on government to ensure every nursery has a qualified teacher. It's an investment we must make to help every child reach their full potential."