Personally Speaking: I'm late! I'm late! I'm only three, but I must achieve

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The mother was pushing the swing as she said to her companion, who was doing the same: "What they are looking for is evidence of analytical thinking."

Perhaps she was speaking of a job application, or access to a MA course? Apparently not. "The testing will be focused on reading readiness and whether they can write their names." She was describing the selection process for nursery school that lay ahead for the tot on the swing.

The mothers on Wandsworth Common in south London seem to speak of little else. They exchange data on the success rates of different primary schools and pre-preps, on which teachers they have decided are "simply hopeless", on where to send Little Treasure for beginners' French, tennis, ballet, swimming, violin and, often, speech therapy. They compare notes on whose child first climbed out of the cot and on to the pot, and identified an individual Teletubby or the Prime Minister. The time on the swing seems to be a rare moment of peace for some three-year-olds.

As an eavesdropping grandmother who raised children when nursery education started after their fourth birthday, and primary (half a day only) after they were five, I sometimes feel exasperated by these young women. But I am also sorry for them. As they discuss the exact percentage scores of each school in the league tables, real worry lines sit around their eyes.

Parents seem to be surrounded by anxiety-makers, who close in early and get a tight grip. The daily message is that early achievement is vital, and that without it all is lost. David Blunkett's pronouncements about the importance of parents hearing their children read each day only describes what has always been usual in many literate homes, but as a Government directive it takes on a slightly hectoring tone and emphasises the status of reading as "work" rather than something as ordinary as walking.

Estelle Morris may say, in a soothing voice, that the parents of four- year-olds have nothing to fear from baseline tests held in the Key Stage Zero classes that have so hastily been tacked on to the bottom of primary schools, but the parents of Wandsworth certainly know their child's score in gory detail and lose sleep in anticipation of the results. Pressure on the little achievers is increased, while the slower know their failure, so resentment burns slow and smoulders deep.

The market has responded with alacrity. At the Early Learning Centre - apparently this joyless name is a success, as it makes toy-buying guilt- free - earnest parents (and grandparents) stock up on the kind of toys designed by Maria Montessori for her nurseries. The Teletubby magazine claims to "build language" - a portentous phrase for an ordinary activity.

But perhaps it is not an ordinary activity. Perhaps the root of the climate of anxiety is the tacit acknowledgement that society has dumbed down, and that all reading has taken on the special status of work. There is a parallel in food. A cookery book of recipes for small children sells thousands of copies; its recommendations for combinations of chicken liver, avocado pear and broccoli are haute cuisine, yet schools report that five-year-olds are more difficult to feed than ever, and will accept only fish fingers and chocolate. Aspirations are high, but the daily reality of eating seems to be dumbed down.

And so it is with play. There are middle-class children whose cupboards of toys are enough to equip a nursery school, but they rarely play with them for long. This is partly because plethora works against play, partly because their pace of life does not encourage any sustained activity. They rush from stimulation to excitement and then flop in front of a video, as do their poor overworked parents.

Reading is not an observably ordinary daily activity in adults' lives: it is a specialist activity, associated with schools and held to be good for children, like liver. Many children are suspicious of what is held to be good for them, but is not much in evidence in the adult world.

Children survive a great deal, including many fads about their rearing. Most of the current small victims of the anxiety-makers will brush it all off and cope. But some will long resent the hurdles that are constantly erected in front of them and the hurt will go deep. Teenagers can exact a terrible revenge.

The writer is former head of North London Collegiate School