Early years succour for poor
Three-quarters of the centres are good or better, according to an Office for Standards in Education report.
The centres were set up by the Government in a scheme targeted at poor areas to provide high-quality education and day care for 0 to five-year-olds and support for their parents and carers.
The report provides strong evidence that the education, care, social support and adult education services they provide improve young children's life chances.
Inspectors praised the impact of teaching on children's personal, social, emotional and physical development.
Children with special needs make particularly good progress at the centres, they said.
However, the teaching of literacy, maths and creativity is "not as strong" and more able children are not always challenged.
Heads and key staff need to improve their evaluation of teaching and keep better records of children's progress, it says.
In September there were 107 centres around the country although some have since been redesignated as Sure Start children's centres.
Ofsted described the centres as forerunners of extended schools which pre-empted the Green Paper Every Child Matters plans to get different children's services including education, social services and health to work together.
Chief inspector David Bell, said: "EECs are setting a precedent when it comes to providing good-quality integrated services. Our report shows the hard work of staff and the enthusiasm of parents and children who attend the centres is proving to be successful in many areas.
"I am sure that all schools and settings for young children can learn lessons from their trailblazing work."
Early Education, which represents parents and those working with young children, welcomed the report.
"We share Ofsted's concerns about weaknesses in some aspects of creative development. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring that all practitioners are skilled in supporting children's creative development," a spokeswoman said.
Adult education at the centres has enabled many parents to return to work.
One centre was forced to axe its fathers group after most found jobs.
Inspectors said such courses had a powerful impact on the ability of parents to help their children learn.
The report is based on the inspection of 23 centres and two early excellence networks between autumn 2001 and summer 2003.
It calls for improvements in the way centres work with local authorities and for more curriculum training for heads.
But Early excellence networks, which provide similar services from a number of sites are "complex and do not work yet," the report says.
Children at the centre: An evaluation of early excellence centres is available at www.ofsted.gov.uk