A decade ago, the UK languished at the bottom of international league tables for its proportion of children in early years education. Now, almost all 3- and 4-year-olds are in school or nursery. This huge shift in the education landscape stems from the Government's belief that improving the lot of the under-5s is a vital ingredient in its programme to raise standards. All the international research evidence shows that ministers are right to focus on this stage of education.
So a Durham University study (page 9), out this week, of 35,000 children who have started school since 2000 is disappointing. It has found no evidence that the pound;21 billion spent on pre-schooling since 1997 has improved children's cognitive abilities or narrowed the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest.
The programme's defenders and, indeed, the authors of the study argue that it may be too early to tell how much difference the Government's initiatives have made. Also, we do not know how many of the children surveyed were in Sure Start centres or other types of pre-school education. But the findings should prompt another look at the details of the scheme.
The first local Sure Start centres were set up nearly a decade ago. Two years ago, a national evaluation report from Birkbeck, University of London, raised questions about the developmental dividends. It found that while the children of relatively better-off parents made good progress, those from the poorest families did not. Birkbeck's latest research is due to be published this autumn.
The case for spending money on this age group remains solid, as shown by the results of the Head Start programme in the United States and the more recent Effective Provision of Pre-school Education project from London University's Institute of Education.
The challenge is to provide enough well trained and qualified staff. An Ofsted report this week (page 9) says that staff in at least 1,000 nurseries and childcare facilities are not offering children enough stimulating activities. Sure Start centres are also short of trained teaching staff partly because they are expected to do a teacher's job without a teacher's pay.
If the Government wants to use Sure Start to give children a better start in life, it will have to pay for it.