9th February 2001 at 00:00
Esme has just started school. At barely four-and-three-quarters, she's the youngest member of the intake. But I don't let that worry me. After all, she's bright, she's the youngest of three children and she's a girl, so - as any reception teacher will tell you - this means she is as likely to cry on her first day in the classroom as Margaret Thatcher was in her first cabinet meeting.

And, predictably enough, she loves it all: "jolly phonics"; music and movement; the adventure playground. Well, it beats being stuck at home listening to You and Yours.

But then my daughter says something that makes me realise how young and ill-prepared for school life she really is.

Esme wanted to go for a poo and, naturally enough, asked one of the classroom helpers to wipe her bottom. The classroom helper kindly obliged. Well, you don't say "no" to a mini Mrs Thatcher.

"You didn't did you," gasps Rose, on hearing Esme's guiltless admission. My seven-year-old daughter - an experienced arbiter on the rights and wrongs of educational etiquette - is horrified by the thought of the lovely Mrs Allison having to do Esme's dirty work. And, I must admit, I also feel embarrassed.

Although my daughter's "youngest-of-three" status has equipped her with an intellectual maturity that will pay dividends in the classroom, one of the disadvantages of being the baby of the family is that, by the time she was a toddler, her child-weary parents had adopted a blase approach to social and personal education. I now see that my "let mummy help you; it'll be quicker" school of parenting will lose her points when it comes to the knife-and-fork manipulation and gym-kit dexterity stakes.

So, shamed into action, Ihave given Esme a crash course in poo management - a traumatic experience involving tears, tantrums and much indignation.

But that's just the start, for I realise there are a whole raft of measures that must be taken if I am going to get Esme's personal and social development back on track.

I know I did all the right things during her pre-school years to prepare her academically - we shared books, learned colours and sang songs. We even had a maths strategy - sock-sorting does involve counting them in and counting them out of the washing basket.

But when it comes to teaching her the boring stuff, I'm a failing mother. I'm talking about the everyday things that can be done efficiently by a parent, but incite outbursts of frustration when attempted by a three-year-old - putting on tights, doing up zips, cutting sausages and pouring drinks.

The problem is that these are aspects of school-life that can really worry a child. And if children are worrying about anything, regardless of how trivial it may seem to us, it will have a negative impact on their learning.

And, of course, teachers argue that if they could cut down on time spent wiping noses and tying laces, they would have more time for teaching. Fine, but let's not forget that Esme is only four. And I'm sure she is not the only reception-class pupil with a social skills deficit.

So, if the Government insists on introducing increasingly younger children into full-time education, it's teachers who will be picking up the pieces - pieces of spilt school dinner, that is.

I'm just glad that baseline assessment didn't include a bum-wiping test. Oh, the shame!

Karen Goddard lives in Woodbridge, Suffolk

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