Toddlers could be placed in state-run “development centres” to give the Scottish government more control over how future generations are raised.
Ministers are concerned that some children, particularly in deprived areas, are failing to thrive educationally because they come from homes blighted by poverty, drug addiction and teenage pregnancy.
Specialists will go into family homes to check whether children have access to books and toys, and parents will be invited to take courses to learn how to better bring up their offspring. Underprivileged children could also be sent to child development centres for up to 30 hours a week of free childcare from the age of 12 months.
The moves are laid out in a report calling for new measures to help Scottish families with poverty and addiction-related problems. The Health Inequalities Policy review was undertaken by the NHS watchdog for the Scottish government.
Although the plans have been welcomed as a bold step to tackle inequality, critics have warned that plans to increase the role of the state could erode the rights of parents.
The news follows concerns over plans to introduce a named state guardian — such as a health worker or a teacher — for every child. That move is the subject of a legal challenge over fears that it interferes with the rights of parents to bring up children.
Ken Frost, founder of the political blog Nanny Knows Best, said: “It is not the state’s role to lecture people on how to bring up their children.”
The report says: “Inequalities in health, between the most and least privileged people and communities, are clearly apparent in Scotland. Social inequalities in early life experiences, education, employment, family life, income and housing can shape people’s health.
“Such differences are clearly unacceptable. Those in the best circumstances need least support and intervention from public services. Those in the poorest circumstances need support according to their need.”
The report is being examined by MSPs as part of an investigation into Scotland’s health inequalities. At present, Scottish children are entitled to free part-time nursery places but they start at age three and are only for 16 hours a week.
A spokesman for campaign group NO2NP, which opposes the introduction of state guardians, said: “This is yet another layer of the ‘nanny state’.
“The vast majority of parents need neither support nor interference from outside bodies and should be trusted and left alone to do what they do best: look after their own children.”
Scottish Labour raised concerns about shortages of qualified staff if the plan went ahead. Jenny Marra, the party’s health spokeswoman, said: “If we want such groups to run regularly in our communities, especially in our most deprived communities, the SNP Scottish government will have to look seriously at putting more staff in place to run them.”
A spokesman for the government said: “We are determined to reduce health inequalities. Our ground- breaking Children and Young People Act has early intervention and prevention at its heart and supports children, young people and families through joined-up services to prevent problems escalating or having long-term effects.”