Ministers should consider raising the school starting age by at least two years, accord-ing to a Midland MP.

Lynne Jones (Lab Selly Oak) urged Ministers to look at school systems in Europe, where children spend longer in pre-school.

She was speaking after a senior Labour MP claimed young children were being robbed of their childhood by formal education and should not go to school before the age of seven.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons education select committee, said pupils would benefit from the Scandinavian model which sees formal schooling start two years later than England.

Pupils should attend their first formal school aged seven and then begin to specialise on academic or work-related courses from 14, he said.

Speaking to the Professional Association of Teachers' annual conference in Oxford, he said: "It seems to me we are stealing childhood away from children. Earlier and earlier we put them into schools.

"Why do we think it is right for our youngest children to be in the care of the least trained and least qualified and worst paid members of the profession?"

Mr Sheerman, the MP for Huddersfield, hailed the Danish system as "wonderful", with toddlers in the hands of well paid, highly qualified childcare teachers.

"It's a wonderful resource. Formal education starts at seven," he said. "I think we should look at the Danish lessons and other Scandinavian countries."

He added: "Let's think really radically. Why not let early education last until seven?

Why not have a pre-school that lasts from three to seven?"

Dr Jones said: "In this country there is a lot of pressure for even quite young children to begin formal education at an early age.

"We need to look at other European countries, where education systems are more successful.

"The key is providing universal nursery education. In this country we have nursery education but it is not free, and often when subsidised it is through complicated tax credits.

"Seven may be a bit too late but we could learn from other countries."

However the proposal was criticised by Brian Carter, West Midland Director of the National Union of Teachers.

He said: "The first year of formal education is already very much about helping children adapt from a pre-school environment.

"Children between the ages of five and seven need to be supervised by fully qualified teachers."

Under the Government's childcare reforms, children in all nurseries will have to follow what has been dubbed a "national curriculum for babies".

Staff will be expected to monitor the progress of youngsters on key skills, including basic number work and coordination, from birth to the age of five.

Parents' groups have condemned the idea as "madness", but the Government insists the curriculum will be "play based" and will not put pressure on toddlers.

Mr Sheerman said children faced too many tests and exams and announced the select committee would be holding an official inquiry into the assessment regime.

He said he hoped to start taking evidence before Christmas.

Schooling in England, Scotland and Wales begins at five, and in Northern Ireland it is four.

Malta and the Netherlands are the only other European countries to have a starting age of five.

Most European countries plump for age six, and Bulgaria, Estonia, Denmark, Latvia, Poland, Romania and Sweden join Finland in choosing seven.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, which advocates a traditional approach to schooling, said he was not convinced change was needed.

He said: "I know some countries get good results but the key point is, when they start at seven, they really move ahead and don't mess about like in our schools."