Undervalued, and therefore underpaid and underfunded, it is no coincidence nursery education, traditionally women's work, was long considered an unskilled job in which children were minded rather than taught.

That was supposed to have changed with a recognition that high-quality early-years education is the key to children making good progress through school and gaining the skills to take an active part in the wider world as adults. Indeed, the Scottish Government, as part of its commitment to "free, flexible and family-friendly early learning and childcare", has set aside £270 million for the Early Years Change Fund.

The reality, as we have seen this week, is that Glasgow City Council, faced with swingeing budget cuts, no longer requires the heads of nurseries to be qualified teachers. While qualifications have become more demanding as nursery nurses are replaced by a new tranche of child development officers, the reason they are being appointed as heads is because they are cheaper than teachers. Yet one of the boasts of the Curriculum for Excellence in Scottish schools is that it starts at age three, providing a clear transition to the early years of primary school.

The yawning chasm between rhetoric and reality becomes truly apparent in the light of this week's other education story: that at some of Scotland's most prestigious universities, less than 5% of the student intake is from areas of multiple deprivation. It is a sobering statistic in a country where free university tuition has been championed by the Government as a means of ensuring that access to university is determined by ability to learn rather than ability to pay. An important component of the post-war optimism symbolised by the coronation of the young Queen was the conviction that Britain was moving towards a meritocracy. For my generation, born in 1952 and reaching university at a time of expansion in higher education, the decline in social mobility and decrease in the proportion of students from working-class backgrounds at Scottish universities amounts to a sense of unfinished business.

Universities such as St Andrews and Edinburgh are trying to tackle the problem by running summer schools for pupils in schools with low academic attainment and mentoring disadvantaged students. Such intervention, however, comes too late for all but the most determined. By the time they start school aged five, the most privileged children are already 18 months ahead of the poorest in terms of verbal skills. There can be no clearer illustration of the importance of pre-school education in tilting the balance for kids born with the odds stacked against them.

Increasing the number of teachers with specialist training in early years is the quickest way to ensure a continuity between nursery and school for four-year-olds. But the growing gulf between the most disadvantaged children and those from happy, stable homes with an appetite for learning indicates the real need is for better provision for the under-threes. This is where Scotland lags seriously behind, with only around 5% having access to full day nursery care compared with European Commission guidelines that there should be provision for at least 30%. Even compared with England, where local authorities were required to implement the Sure Start programme, Scottish children are the poor relations. This compounds the difficulties for single mothers in particular, who need accessible child care in order to work and improve their children's living standards.

Of course parents and families have the major role to play in the development of young children but as the most dedicated full-time mothers or fathers know, even young children benefit from mixing with other children and adults to learn new skills. In an ideal world, early years education would be regarded as essential infrastructure, the social equivalent of roads and railways and available to all. At a time of severe retrenchment in public spending, our best resources must be concentrated on those in greatest need. There can be little argument that the under-fives – who account for one-quarter of referrals to children's hearings – should be first in line. They – and their parents – need to learn from competent professionals. Far from lowering the qualifications for those in pre-school education, we should set out to attract the brightest and best to this most challenging of tasks.