Deprived children in Birmingham are to begin their education from the age of two in an effort to give them a head start on their middleclass counterparts.

The Government-driven experiment aims to close the attainment gap between poor children and those from wealthier backgrounds once they start school.

Youngsters from Birmingham's deprived inner-city wards are to be targeted by the two-year pilot.

But the project was criticised by a leading policy adviser as treating the very young as "objects for education rather than loving care".

Announcing the scheme, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly said: "We know that, for these children, access to good-quality provision early on can help to narrow gaps in outcomes and improves life chances.

"Through these pilots we will also be looking at how to engage parents, particularly those who find services difficult to access."

The Department for Eduction and Skills said it did not yet know how many toddlers in Birmingham would be targeted by the pilot.

However, Birmingham City Council said there would be 600 starting from September, although there were no details about where the scheme would be carried out.

The scheme extends a statutory entitlement of 121[2044]2 hours free nursery provision that is already provided for three and four-year-olds.

But Jill Kirby, who recently completed a review of the Government's early years agenda for the respected Centre for Policy Studies, condemned the move. "The Government is confusing the needs of very young children and childcare needs with educational objectives," she said.

"Its own research is very clear that pre-school education for three-year-olds is helpful. But for two-year-olds continuity of care with parents is more important."

Ms Kirby, chairwoman of the CPS's Family Policy Project, published a report last month called The Nationalism of Childhood, in which she branded Labour's childcare programme "dangerous and misguided".

Speaking to The Birmingham Post, she claimed Ministers appeared to determined to put children into "mass care" at an ever younger age.

"Gordon Brown wants to get more mothers into work and it is dressed up as being in the interest of the child.

"It is really treating babies and toddlers as objects for education rather than loving care."

Labour has spent £17 billion on childcare reforms since coming to power. As a result, one in four children now have access to a childcare place, compared with one in seven in 1997.

Birmingham is one of 15 areas to run the pilot including Sandwell, Barnsley, Bradford, Liverpool, Nottingham, South Tyneside and London's Tower Hamlets.

An average of 71.2 hours provision spread over three days, with a maximum of 121.2 hours a week will be made available.

Moira Foster-Brown, headteacher of Birchfield Community School in Hands-worth which runs an "academy" for pre-school children, questioned starting youngsters at age two. "We have taught three and four-year-olds and it definitely makes a difference," she said. "I don't know about two-year-olds though."