I am a specialist in the early years though I wear a disguise.
Yesterday a four-year-old in my early reception class said to me: "My mum says that you are a nursery nurse, that means you look after us if we are ill or hurt ourselves."
Parents are not the only ones to misinterpret this quaint job title, first used more than 100 years ago for child carers. Even the Department for Education and Employment calls us "learning support assistants," a title that conveys nothing of the skilled and dedicated work that nursery nurses carry out every day.
After 15 years' experience and at the highest grade, I take home pound;860 per month. For this I mop up leaking toilets, re-create wall displays, work with children with special needs, write observations or assessments, and plan and implement the curriculum.
When I was first employed, nursery nurses were considered to be of low status in the school hierarchy. I did not attend staff meetings, parents' evenings or social functions.
Thankfully, our status has improved, but many nursery nurses in education still feel undervalued. Our role is to work alongside another professional and to establish a powerful partnership in the workplace, where everyone's contributions are valued.
Schools refer to us as "support staff", even though we have completed a rigorous two-year training course and hold a professional qualification. We have no career framework and further qualifications that are undertaken are not always acknowledged.
Do teachers understand the role of the nursery nurse in the classroom? Some that I spoke to admitted they had no idea, although trained to work at key stage 1. We are called upon to support new teachers, sharing our experience and expertise, often working more hours than we are paid for.
I am often told "You should be a teacher". But would that make a difference to the way I work with children or colleagues? I strongly believe that a person who works in the classroom with children and supporting the class teacher should be considered as an "educator" whether they be a parent volunteer, a classroom assistant or a qualified nursery nurse.
Research has shown that a large percentage of nursery nurses feel they do the same job as the teacher and spend the same amount of time with the children per day. However, the teacher is always considered as team leader. There would be no question of usurping them or failing to recognise their training or qualifications.
When it comes to pay and conditions, it is very difficult to be heard by management or unions alike. Unison, the largest public-sector union, has more than 30,000 nursery nurse members, but the officials that I have met recently have a very clouded view of our role in education.
I am employed by the borough of Southwark, south London, where a "single-status" scheme is going to be introduced by April 2000. Single status means bringing officers and manual workers on to one common grading and salary system.
A model job description is being written and after assessment, the nursery nurse's job will be re-graded with the possibility of the salary being frozen for three years or more.
In some cases, salaries may be reduced to align with other workers on the same grade.
Last year a group of Southwark nursery nurses drew up an up-to-date and professional job description. We received scant acknowledgement, and our requests for meetings with the management have been ignored.
Surely, the transition to the single-status scheme would be completed more amicably if the education department were more open to negotiation.
Many of my colleagues in local schools have not been informed of the intended changes - one working for a neighbouring authority had never even heard of a "single-status" agreement.
Is the scheme going to affect all local government workers nationwide? If so, then other workers must feel as aggrieved as we do.
It is a possibility that redundancies will take place. Of course, nursery nurses agree that all workers should receive a fair wage, but should it be at the risk of losing those employees who work with the most vulnerable children in education today?
Before submitting to this unfair piece of legislation, allow us to change our job title to "early years specialist". It conveys to fellow educators and parents a true image of our role in education and gives us the official recognition we have been striving for. We are, after all, the largest group of workers trained specifically to work with the early years.
The Government wants to provide 50,000 more nursery places, but will there be trained staff to provide the skills, knowledge and experiences for these children? Freezing nursery nurses' pay and undervaluing their contribution is no way to attract them.
Mary Callard works in a Southwark primary school Letters, 20