More needs to be done to reach and support children from the most excluded groups in society under the Sure Start scheme, the National Audit Office (NAO) finds.
Sure Start children's centres aim to provide joined-up childcare, health and emotional support for children to give them the best possible start in life whatever their background.
And while the NAO finds the centre's are valued by the majority of the families who use them, it adds "the early signs are that more still needs to be done to reach and support some of the most excluded groups" in a report released today.
"Though it is too early to tell the long-term impact of Sure Start children's centres on children's lives, we do know that families value the services they provide," said NAO head John Bourn.
"It is vital that the services reach the most needy members of our communities."
Fewer than one Sure Start child centre in three is looking for and taking services to families with the most need in their area, the NAO report finds.
Lone and teenage parents, disabled children's parents and parents from some ethnic minorities are typically the hardest to reach and the least likely to visit a children's centre to take advantage of the services provided there, the NAO points out, but these were the groups often ignored by Sure Start centres.
As well as doing more to help the most vulnerable groups of society, the NAO found that local authorities need to understand their costs better to see if they are using their funds effectively.
The costs of centres, and of activities in centres, vary widely, and local authorities and centres the NAO visited needed to understand their costs better and assess whether they were using their funds cost-effectively.
Most local authorities (56 per cent) are not monitoring the performance of centres and almost as many (52 per cent) are not working to identify the cost or cost-effectiveness of services.
"For the future, local authorities and the centres should focus on gaining a better understanding of their costs, and on working effectively with other agencies to get the maximum value from the resources available through children's centres."
The NAO report recommends projects to reach identified disadvantaged groups; training staff in financial expertise and new ways of working; centres and local authorities establishing the cost of activities; enhancing relationships with partner agencies; and better local monitoring to secure value for money.
Children's minister Beverley Hughes welcomed the news that the scheme is exceeding its targets for reaching families in need, but accepted more could be done.
"Children's centres represent an entirely new way of delivering public services and play a crucial role in our efforts to give children the best start in life and eradicate child poverty," she said.
"Implementing such radical change presents challenges and whilst we celebrate the achievement so far, this report helps to focus us on our own findings about what more needs to be done."
Sure Start was launched in 1998 to improve the health and well-being of children before and after birth as well as supporting their parents back in to work.
They combine early education, childcare, family support, employment advice and health services.
So far 1,000 centres have been built in deprived areas and the scheme is beating its target of reaching 650,000 children by the end of March 2006.
The government has said it will create 3,500 Sure Start centres by 2010 and passed overall responsibility for the programme to local authorities in 2006.