It's a sunny September morning and mothers, childminders and nannies are playing with their children under the shade of a tree. Toddlers shuffle astride wooden vehicles, while two other youngsters are having fun posting plastic balls down long cardboard tubes. This is the start of a new term at Kate Greenaway Children's Centre in Islington, London.
The nursery attached to the centre was recently lauded as outstanding by Ofsted inspectors. Emily Morton – a part-time events producer who is also mother of 14-month-old Buster – says: "This is probably the best staffed and run nursery in the area. I would love him to come here because of the way they interact with the children and because of the mix of ages and social backgrounds. London is so segmented. You get playgroups on the [council] estates, but they don't tend to be frequented by the people who live in the big terraced houses. And there are more middle-class groups, but nowhere that gets a good mix like this."
Natalie O'Donoghue lives just opposite the centre, is on income support and would likewise love her 20-month-old daughter, Isabelle, to have a place at the nursery. She says: "I think they are very good. I think that they should be open to everyone. It would not be right to keep some people out."
But these children may no longer get the chance to play together if David Cameron has his way. Challenged over the future of Sure Start, which started life as a scheme offering support and childcare to parents in the most disadvantaged areas, Mr Cameron suggested last month that the initiative should return to its original focus on the poorest, and that middle-class parents ought not to be taking up its services. He said: "There is a criticism sometimes of Sure Start that a great new centre is established and the sharp-elbowed middle classes – like my wife and me – get in there and get all the services."
Mr Cameron's comments are the strongest hint yet that following next month's Comprehensive Spending Review the middle classes are set to lose access to some public services and benefits so that services targeted at the most disadvantaged can be maintained.
Today there are 3,500 children's centres nationwide. This £1.14bn-a-year programme has its roots in programmes abroad, such as Head Start in the US, which demonstrated how better services for the poorest youngsters improve life outcomes and reduce demands on public funds in the long term.
Researchers in the US demonstrated that Head Start helped three-year-olds develop better language and intellectual skills than those who did not participate. They scored higher in standardised tests and had fewer learning difficulties later on. Parents participating in the scheme developed positive habits such as reading to their children, and punished them less. They also furthered their own education and careers. African-American families, teen parents, and parents suffering from depression were found to have benefited the most from Head Start.
In Britain, Sure Start Children's Centres were created in 2004 as a "brand" intended to rationalise and pull together various preceding government initiatives, including Sure Start (in areas with very high concentrations of under-fours in poverty), Early Excellence Centres (integrating education for the under-fives with childcare), and the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative (affordable childcare for working parents in poor neighbourhoods).
Whereas the earlier programmes targeted only the poorest areas, even some of the wealthiest areas now have their own Sure Start Children's Centres. Today the centres offer a mix of services, including affordable childcare, drop-in services for all families, and outreach work targeting the must vulnerable.
But in these tough economic times, critics have questioned whether Sure Start can remain a universal service, or whether it would be better to scale back the programme to focus on the most disadvantaged children. Suggestions include a radical reduction in the number of centres, or slashing the services they offer. Jan Stillaway, head of the Kate Greenaway Nursery and Children's Centre, believes this would be a terrible mistake. She argues: "David Cameron talks a lot about wanting to offer services to the poorest. Well good luck with that, but how are you going to do it?
"If you create a stigmatised service, nobody is going to use it. Everybody who has a baby could be vulnerable – middle-class parents get postnatal depression, suffer domestic violence and other problems. So if you were going to exclude these parents you are going to exclude a lot of vulnerable people." The "Stay and Play" group taking place outside Ms Stillaway's window may simply look like mothers and babies having fun, but a good deal of parenting advice and specialist help is subtly offered by the staff.
There has been no complacency, Ms Stillaway says. Some classes – such as Pilates, baby massage and yoga – were found to be largely attended by middle-class parents and their children; these are still offered, but fees are now charged and the money will be used to fund an invitation-only class targeted at needier families.
Similarly, a dads-only Stay and Play on Saturday mornings attracted mainly middle-class fathers, and was discontinued as such. And the centre has started running Stay and Play groups in halls on local council estates, to make sure they are on the doorstep of their target audience.
Ms Stillaway says: "All the data about who attends is analysed to see how well we are doing at reaching the most vulnerable. If they cut our money, we would have to scale down... But we would still want to offer a mixture of things, otherwise no one would come. If you knock on someone's door and say, 'There's a new Stay and Play on your estate. It's really fun, why don't you come?' very often they will say yes. If you say, 'Why don't we sit down with a massive form so you can tell me about all your problems?' they are going to say no."
Alison Ruddock, Islington's head of early years, fears government plans could set such services back 20 years in a borough that ranks as the sixth most deprived in the country but where there is also great wealth. "The fact that we have a mixed population is hugely to our advantage," she says. "We haven't got rich centres and sink centres. So the most disadvantaged children are shoulder to shoulder with the most advantaged. If you have a service for poor children, it's very difficult to prevent that from becoming a poor service."
And children's centres are not just about nursery places. Family support in various forms must also be available to everyone, Ms Ruddock argues. "Very few families identify themselves as poor. We have to produce something so attractive that people want to engage with it."
But the existing Children's Centres, and the previous Labour government's wider early-years programmes, have been coming under fire long before David Cameron's latest salvo. Indeed, the shift to Children's Centres was prompted by disappointing early evaluations of the Sure Start Local Programmes. There have also been concerns about whether the centres can really engage with the most vulnerable. Attending even the most welcoming Stay and Play session may require confidence and social skills beyond the reach of some of the most disadvantaged parents. And the National Audit Office noted that Children's Centres were unable to supply detailed financial data allowing their value for money to be properly evaluated.
So is the programme in its current form value for money? The charity Action for Children argues that it is, citing research showing that £4.60 of public money is saved for every £1 spent. Specialist charities are united in their defence of Sure Start and the importance of maintaining a universal service for families of all incomes.
Megan Pacey, chief executive of the voluntary group Early Education says: "Within its first 100 days, the new Government's axe has already hit the earliest years hard. Cuts to the Sure Start Children's Centre programme will add to the feeling in the sector that [services for the] early years are being disproportionately targeted."
Kate Groucutt, policy director at the Daycare Trust charity says any cuts to Sure Start would be "incredibly short-sighted," and services focused on only the lowest-income parents and their children would "present a real danger of stigmatisation".
Campaigners fear that the ring fence protecting Sure Start funding for 2010/11 will be lifted, meaning ministers could distance themselves from cuts by forcing local authorities to wield the axe. Local councillors tend anyway to dislike ring-fencing, arguing that it restricts their ability to tailor local services to local needs.
Baroness Shireen Ritchie, chair of the Children and Young People's Board at the Local Government Association, argues: "Councils can make their valuable funding go further when they are given the maximum amount of flexibility over how and where public money is spent." But others caution that Children's Centres need more time to demonstrate their worth. Ofsted only began inspecting Children's Centres in April, and a report by an all-party committee of MPs in March warned it would be "catastrophic" if their funding was cut while evaluation was ongoing.
Parents, early-years workers, campaigners and council leaders can now only wait to see what October's spending review brings.
* In the late Nineties, research, mainly in the US, concluded that better services for the youngest children could improve their life chances and reduce the demand on public resources in the long term. Programmes in America included Head Start, the Perry Pre-School Programme and the Chicago Child-Parent Centres.
* Sure Start was launched in Britain in 1998 with what became known asSure Start Local Programmes. From 1999 to 2002, the Government spent £450m on creating 250 projects in areas with very high concentrations of children under four living in poverty. By the end of 2003, there were 524 such local programmes serving the most deprived communities.
* Meanwhile from late 1997 Early Excellence Centres, set up in existing nurseries, were developing models of good practice for integrating early education with childcare.
* In 2001 the Neighbourhood Nurseries programme was set in motion for the poorest neighbourhoods in England, aiming to create 45,000 new, high-quality, accessible and affordable day-care places for under-fives.
* Three years later, Sure Start Children's Centres were launched as a "brand" that would rationalise these preceding initiatives, incorporating the most important lessons learnt from each. This shift to Children's Centres was prompted by disappointing early evaluations of the Sure Start Local Programmes, and the very positive findings about the impact of good quality integrated education and care, as in the Early Excellence Centres.
* There are now 3,500 Children's Centres, one for every community. Those in wealthier areas (which were rolled out last) do not have to offer the full range of services provided by centres in disadvantaged areas.