Education: School daze

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Charlotte comes and sits beside me at the table, which is covered in mounds of yellow, red and blue plastic shapes. She could practise her fine-motor skills by fixing some bits together, thereby creating a "model" and doing some design and technology. She might be inspired to use her imagination and we could talk, therefore developing her linguistic skills. She twiddles a plastic wheel aimlessly, letting it roll up and down her palm. Every so often, her hands dive into her hair, feverishly scratching nit bites with fingers and the wheel.

Today she is wearing what she wore yesterday and the day before: a thin, cotton dress with worn, tired-looking tights and open-toed sandals that have let in rain, sand and paint. She is like a magnet, sticking to my leg as she snuggles up closer for warmth and comfort. I put my arm around her shoulders and smile at her. Her head stays bowed, but occasionally her eyes slide sideways to check out my facial expression as I talk about what we could make with these moulded parts.

Suddenly, her face lights up and her warm, brown eyes open excitedly and she says: "'Ave you got any kids at 'ome?" I tell her I haven't.

"Well," she smiles, "I know what - I could be your kid and you could be my new mum, couldn't you?"

"Oh," I say, "but your mum would miss you and you would miss her."

"Nah," she says, shaking her head. "She just shouts at me."

"But your mum loves you. It's just that sometimes your mum gets cross. But she still likes you."

Charlotte's head sinks, her hand rolling the wheel along her arm. "Nah, she don't. I know she don't 'cos she said she don't."

I hug her closer to me and my eyes fill with her unshed tears and my throat tightens. I feel love and compassion rushing through me, wanting to protect her from the sadness no four-year-old should ever experience. The rest of the children in the nursery are active, vocal and more or less involved, but I can stay here with Charlotte no longer.

I feel frustration and an overwhelming feeling of not having helped her, but there are so many others needing me in so many ways that I have to parcel up the scene, take it home with me and let it act as a reminder when next planning what we want to achieve from the education we offer.

The writer is a nursery teacher at Berinsfield Primary School in south Oxfordshire. She has 39 full-time equivalent children in her class.