Early years experts have condemned the Audit Commission figures on education for the under-fives as "misleading".
The commission's league tables published this week do not differentiate between education authorities which put three and four-year-old children in primary reception classes - a practice frowned upon by some- and those which put them in nursery classes.
Vicky Hurst, vice-president of the National Campaign for Nursery Education and a Goldsmiths' College lecturer, said: "The figures are absolutely unacceptable. It's like saying how many children went into a dining hall and not how many had a good meal. There's no assurance of good provision."
Gillian Pugh, director of the early childhood unit at the National Children's Bureau, and Professor Christine Pascal, chair of early childhood education at Worcester College of Higher Education, agreed. The figures were not telling anybody anything new and said nothing about quality, they said.
The league tables have already angered at least one education authority - Cleveland, which comes 15th (with 64 per cent) in the Audit Commission's chart showing the percentage of three and four-year-olds with a school place in the English and Welsh counties in 199394.
Clwyd (92 per cent), Northumberland (89), West Glamorgan (89), Dyfed (85) and South Glamorgan (81) are the top five counties; Liverpool (97), Walsall (93), Doncaster (91), North Tyneside (89) and Sunderland (89) are the top metropolitan councils; and Haringey (95), Merton (90), Tower Hamlets (85), Brent (85) and Greenwich (80) are the top London boroughs.
Cleveland points out that it was top of the recently published Government league table showing the percentage of under-fives in maintained nursery and primary schools in January 1994.
That table, which was published in the parliamentary record Hansard, showed Cleveland with 90 per cent and Northumberland with 71 per cent. Northumberland has 89 per cent compared to Cleveland's 64 per cent in the Audit Commission table. Hansard did not cover Wales.
A spokesman for Cleveland said: "We are baffled by these figures. After years of consistent figures from the Government showing we are among the top under-fives providers, coupled with the fact that we are on the verge of achieving 100 per cent provision, these figures do not give a true reflection of our performance."
Part of the problem could be that Cleveland excluded figures for rising fives whereas the Audit Commission guidelines stated that children should be included if they were under five on the previous December 31.
The Audit Commission says the disparity could be related to the fact that the Government figures were calculated for the school year and not for the financial year.
Patricia Davies, head of the early childhood unit at the charity,Children in Wales, said Dyfed had large numbers of three-year-olds in reception classes. And she highlighted the problems associated with this practice in a paper sent to nursery campaigners last week: "Parents said that their initial beliefs that early admission (to primary school) would give their children a head start have been replaced by a realisation that their children were tired, had difficulty in sitting and listening and concentrating."
But Professor Pascal criticised the commission for not taking political control into account. Under-fives services were most widely available in Labour and Liberal authorities and least available in former Tory-controlled ones, she said.