What price early years in the new age of austerity?
When the Chancellor addressed the House of Commons last Tuesday, anyone with an interest in public sector investment would have been well advised to listen to what he was telling MPs. Phrases in use included "once in a generation", "savage cuts" and "value for money".
Those who believe in early years education have grown used to such discussions in the recent electoral season, with Labour regularly accusing the Tories of planning to scale back investment in such areas as Sure Start children's centres.
So when, earlier this month, a report commissioned by the Office for National Statistics was published that purported to analyse the cost-effectiveness of early years education, the national press jumped on it, finding conclusions that suited whatever story each paper wanted to peddle.
The Times, then Newsnight, seized on a sentence that said "there was no statistically significant difference between total FSP (foundation stage profile) score for children who attended early years settings and children who did not". The TV programme even went as far as pitching author Michael Morpurgo, a champion of early years funding, against Wendy Pyatt, representing the university sector, as if there were only one way to find out who deserved money.
But this was a brutal simplification of the document. "It's all very complicated," says David Wilkinson, one of the researchers who have seen their document - Quality, Outcomes and Costs in Early Years Education - being brandished as proof that we need to spend lots more or lots less on the sector.
The report itself began life three years ago as part of a wider project to find ways of measuring what government is getting from public services in terms of quality and value.
Mr Wilkinson has since made it clear that assessing the value-for-money return of early years investment is nigh on impossible given the difficulty of finding out how money is being spent now. More than half of maintained providers and 30 per cent of those in the voluntary sector did not know their total outgoings. "It started out with a value-for-money aim, but it just proved impossible within this study," he says.
But there is another highly significant question raised that goes to the very heart of the matter: does early years education have any impact on outcomes further along the road of a pupil's education?
What Mr Wilkinson's study of 7,939 children shows is that those who started early education before the age of three do better than those who started later (a story run by the Telegraph and Daily Mail). This does not include a random hour or two of playschool, but a commitment to quality time in education.
This argument is perhaps best put by Pam Sammons, professor of education at Oxford University and one of the principal investigators in the ongoing Effective Provision of Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education study. She says these findings mirror her investigations. "We found that starting pre-school at two years old was better than starting at three," she says. "The best impact was long duration and high quality; half-time attendance was as good as full time but a longer duration was beneficial."
Spending on early years services has risen from #163;1.1 billion a year in 199798 to #163;5 billion in 200708. There is a debate about whether that is worth it for a rise of 1.5 points out of a possible 113 on the foundation stage profile (now early years foundation stage profile). But another question is whether the assessments we have simply measure the wrong thing.
For example, walk into a class at Bognor Regis Nursery School and Children's Centre on a sunny June day and you would be unlikely to find many two-year-olds there.
"They are all outside," says headteacher Sian Rees-Jones. "The outdoor environment is very important to us. The two-year-olds will be in sand, exploring the water feature, hiding in little shelters around the garden, doing appearing and disappearing games."
To outsiders, it may seem very ordinary and not particularly educational, but that perhaps shows a lack of imagination on their part - not the children's.
"This is how children develop a deep understanding of the world around them," says Mrs Rees-Jones. "They have to internalise these experiences and that means making sure that things are the same the next day, exploring in depth, revisiting and understanding how the world around them works."
Mrs Rees Jones was appointed OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours for her work - the school has been judged "outstanding" on six occasions. She has tracked her children through to reception in various schools and found they do better than their peers. It is the quality of the provision that makes the difference, she believes.
"We have experienced teachers and nursery nurses working in close partnership with parents - a team that has high aspirations and is focused on supporting individual children," she adds.
It seems so obvious - and Mrs Rees-Jones speaks with 29 years' experience of working with young children - but the conclusion of the recent National Institute of Economic and Social Research study was also troubling. In a sample of about 500 children, it found no link between how well children did on the FSP at age five and the quality of the setting attended - whether that quality was measured by Ofsted, a scale looking at routines, language and interaction, a scale looking at literacy, maths, science and diversity, or a relationship scale.
The study also found no link between Ofsted ratings and children's attainments on several different scales - not just the FSP scores but five other assessments: naming pictures, putting together squares to make a pattern, matching a picture to its pair, social skills, and behavioural difficulties.
But it did find a link between other measures of quality and how well children did both academically and socially, suggesting perhaps that it was the Ofsted and FSP ratings that were inaccurate. Both have now been changed.
In Southport, Colin Coleman, head of Linaker Primary School and Children's Centre, is a passionate believer in the value of an early start and opened an early years centre attached to his school four years ago.
"The benefits it has brought the school, the children and their families are immense - I would never go back," he says.
He has checked the profile scores of children in reception who had been at the children's centre since they were one or two "out of curiosity", and there does seem to be a difference: they do get higher scores.
But there are other outcomes he can see - even if they are harder to measure.
"Twenty-three per cent of our children are from ethnic minority communities, mostly from Eastern Europe," he says. "There may be only very small numbers of people from their own community here, and those families can be very isolated. The simple fact that they have the opportunity to come to nursery helps.
"The whole thing is very difficult to prove - sometimes you can't prove you are making a difference. But you just know as a professional that you have confidence, in enjoyment, things which in the longer term will show a difference in attainment."
Proving such experiences - and the value of the work early years practitioners do - may well be challenging to academic research, but those on the ground know that when it's good, it's invaluable.