Furious primary teacher asks why she must change 6-year-olds' nappies

I’m a furious primary school teacher… why should I change a six-year-old’s nappy just because their middle-class mums are ‘too busy’ to teach them to use the loo?

  • Teachers find nappy-changing time-consuming and wearing, but it’s the norm
  • READ MORE: My daughter was in night nappies when she started going to school and I WON’T apologise for it – no one should criticise working mums for being too busy to potty-train

At the primary school where I work, one harried mum recently forgot to drop off her son’s spare set of clothes and some nappies.

She promised she’d return within the hour, but 90 minutes later there was still no sign of her.

When I called to ask where they were (by this time, the poor boy had whispered to me that he’d wet himself), her response was depressingly, yet predictably, negative: ‘I don’t have time! He’s at school so it’s your problem now.’

But she’s wrong.

Nappy-changing very definitely isn’t in my teaching job description. Particularly because the child in question wasn’t a toddler, but a six-year-old.

Nappy-changing isn’t in a primary teacher’s job description, but it’s become the norm at many schools (stock image)

You may be stunned to hear that a mother would send her son to school without first teaching him how to use the loo. But, sadly, this blasé attitude isn’t a parental one-off. 

In fact, this slapdash approach towards children’s welfare is becoming the norm, especially among many affluent families.

Indeed, it’s so common that in my school in a well-to-do middle-class town in the south of England, where I teach children aged four to six, we have a bank of spare clothes and underwear, along with nappies, wipes and lotions, on the fully equipped changing station (all of which comes out of the school budget).

In fact, most of the primary schools I have worked in have needed these amenities. Over my 11 years in teaching, on an almost daily basis I’ve dealt with children aged from four to seven who still aren’t toilet-trained.

On this occasion, though, my teaching assistant had to go to the local supermarket to buy (appropriately sized) nappies for the poor child.

This six-year-old was particularly socially aware. He was incredibly embarrassed that I had to sort him out and put on a fresh nappy.

Instances like this are why, like most teaching staff around the country, I was horrified by Shona Sibary’s confession in Femail earlier this month that she had sent her four-year-old to school without proper potty-training and simply hoped for the best.

Shona was responding to comments made by MP Miriam Cates, who blamed overstretched working mums for the rise in older children still in nappies at school. 

‘I packed off all four of my offspring to school with a spare pair of pants in their rucksack, feeling a rush of guilt that none of them was truly prepared for this next big step in their lives,’ Shona wrote.

If every child in a class turned up without proper potty training, teachers would probably spend all day changing them (stock image)

She may feel guilty. But teachers like me feel furious that parents are, quite literally, leaving us to clean up their mess.

I’m only 33, yet I’ve changed hundreds of nappies in the schools I’ve worked in. (The irony that I’m not a mother myself but have likely had more nappy experience than some of the parents I encounter doesn’t escape me.)

The youngest was an understandable two-year-old poppet, the eldest a mortified, Spider-Man-obsessed seven-year-old lad.

I honestly wanted to shake his parents for not carving out the time necessary to achieve this vital milestone with him.

Parenting experts suggest that children are mature enough to learn between the ages of two and three. Yet a recent report outlined that 90 per cent of reception teachers, like me, reported having children in their class who aren’t toilet-trained.

For those who think it’s not a big deal, let me inform you that it’s not just a question of changing the child and getting them into dry clothes. Different schools have individual policies, yet on every occasion, lessons are stopped.

In some, teachers have to contact the parents to alert them to the incident. We always have to check we have permission to change the child. I spend between four and five hours a week doing this, when I could be teaching.

My colleagues and I find it time-consuming and wearing, but it’s become the norm. It’s the rest of the class that really loses out, especially pupils who need a bit of extra attention.

These are most certainly the children who need my full attention, yet they get overlooked when I’m sorting the basics of keeping everyone in unsoiled clothes.

Some primary teachers have changed hundreds of nappies at the schools they’ve worked in and likely have more nappy experience than some of the parents they encounter (stock image)

This is not what I envisaged when I became a teacher. After studying for a psychology degree, I knew I wanted to work with children. 

First, I spent two years as a teaching assistant and loved it. The children were aged four to five years and I found it so rewarding. Ready to commit, I did the year-long Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course to become a teacher.

I knew that the hours would be long, and my salary would be far from stellar. But for me, teaching a new generation of children was a real privilege.

But do I still feel that same passion some 11 years later? Some days, I feel as though I don’t have time to teach at all.

It would be easy to jump to conclusions about the home backgrounds of children who haven’t mastered toilet-training. You might assume children from poorer families are most affected. But that’s not the case.

It’s often middle-class parents used to nannies and au pairs at their beck and call who expect the educational system to pick up the slack with their little darlings.

Such parents are all too frequently doctors or nurses, doubtless off to spend their day correcting the lifestyle choices of their patients while ignoring what’s going on under their noses.

But no white-collar profession is off limits; my parents include those who work in finance, or hold prestigious positions in the civil service. 

I find middle-class parents are also the ones most likely to be chronically late in dropping off their children, which stresses their offspring. These parents dash from one day to the next, lurching from one life ‘crisis’ to another.

Face-to-face chats with such parents are rare, too, because they have ‘no time’. 

When I do manage to pin down such a parent, my message is clear. I remind them of the life skills their children need to have — to use a knife and fork; to put on and remove their shoes; to zip up their coat; and, of course, to be toilet-trained.

I try to impress upon them that the average child needs their mum and dad firmly and consistently helping them navigate the world outside their home.

I’ll doggedly remind them that toilet-training requires their full attention, offering tips such as praising their children at home for going to the lavatory, or encouraging them to use a sticker reward system.

Many of them look at me as though I’ve told them to teach their child Mandarin (although that would probably get a more positive response), and shoot me down with ‘I’m too busy!’

I’ve heard it all before. But how can you be too busy to teach your child such a basic skill — one that, if ignored, will hinder their physical and emotional development?

And why on earth do you think such an important responsibility lies more with me, someone who may only be in your child’s life a few short months, rather than with you, their parent?

Teachers wonder how parents can be too busy to potty train their child, something that, if ignored, will hinder their physical and emotional development

Sometimes, I quietly discuss this with close friends. One girlfriend — a mum of four — said she’d consider herself a failure if one of her children went to school with nappies. Hear, hear! If only more mothers felt like this.

To those who still believe it’s my ‘job’ to deal with your child’s toilet issues, I say this: I teach a class of 30. If every child in my class turned up without proper potty training, I’d probably spend all day changing them.

But even changing one child — your child — takes up a significant portion of my time. Time that I’m not teaching them, or their peers, the things I should be, such as how to read, or spell, or count.

Yes, toilet training is ‘boring’. But who said being a parent was one long chuckle-fest?

Surely the fact your child will be so much happier and more confident afterwards is its own reward. And if that isn’t enough to motivate you, ask yourself why you committed to having children in the first place.

As for me, I’m planning to leave the profession next year. Having read this, are you surprised?

  • As told to Samantha Brick.

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