Early year initiatives need to be reviewed to assess whether they are reaching those youngsters most in need, according to education experts.
A study conducted by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University suggested schemes such as Sure Start had done little to improve basic levels of reading, maths and vocabulary.
The study looked at the progress of 117,000 children beginning primary school in England in the last eight years.
The findings follow comments from David Cameron that Sure Start schemes, which aim to help parents in poorer areas give their children an educational boost, were being used by “sharp-elbowed middle classes”.
Labour MP Frank Field, the government’s ‘poverty tsar’, has also criticised Sure Start for failing to meet New Labour’s key target of lifting poorer families out of poverty in education.
This study, published in the Oxford Review of Education, includes recent data that has not previously been released by the CEM, to give an up-to-date analysis of trends.
Dr Christine Merrell, who led the research, said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools, so it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement.
“Our findings reinforce the concern that the poorest families in our society are not accessing the full range of educational opportunities and resources designed to help them.
“Sure Start and other early years’ initiatives, like pre-school interventions through Education Action Zones, have valuable aims but we must evaluate what works and doesn’t work in a rigorous and scientific way.
“It’s vital to deliver services in ways and in places that enable parents from the poorest section of society to take full advantage of them.”
Sure Start was set up in England by the previous Labour government to improve the education of under-fours and families living in disadvantaged areas.