The benefits of Sure Start children's centres are at risk of being diluted as it is expanded from a service for disadvantaged children to one which is universal, leading academics have warned MPs.
The comments come as the scheme is rolled out nationwide. When it was launched 10 years ago it was designed as a way of improving childcare and education in deprived areas; by 2010, there are due to be 3,500 children's centres.
But Professor Iram Siraj-Blatchford, professor of early childhood education at the Institute of Education, told the Commons' Children, Families and Schools' Select Committee this week that there was a danger that money and expertise would be spread too thinly due to the expansion.
"To try and do this on the cheap is a problem," she told the MPs. "I would rather have less centres, say 500 children's centres, doing a fantastic job, rather than 3,500 delivering a squib."
In 2008, research led by Professor Edward Melhuish of the institute for the study of children, families and social issues at Birkbeck College, London, looking at the impact the centres had on three-year-olds found that "the local programmes represent an intervention unlike almost any other undertaken to enhance the life prospects of young children in disadvantaged families and communities".
It found that the children were more likely to be helpful, kind, generally obedient and independent. Parenting was found to be better in these areas, too, and children were more likely to be read to, taught songs and have the chance to paint and draw at home.
Professor Siraj-Blatchford added that though there was some evidence the gap between disadvantaged children and others was narrowing, there was the difficulty that if you improved outcomes for everyone you can extend the gap.
Between 1999 and 2003, there were 524 Sure Start local programmes set up. They did not have a prescribed "curriculum" or set of services and were able to try out different ways of working with deprived communities where provision had been poor for years. A key aspect was that they worked with all children under four in the area, rather than targeted families.