Archive | April, 2013

A Gruffalo for the Gryffalo

29 Apr

So it was my little Gryffalo’s first birthday last week. Unbelievable how quickly that time has flown. It feels like only yesterday that my good wife was caught out with the early arrival of our boy while pond dipping on a school trip!

While I am pretty much an exclusive Carrot Cake man I thought the below creation was worthy of a quick blog post. Sure we can all agree it’s pretty special.

54

The cake looked spectacular. What’s more impressive is that it tasted amazing as well. Really moist victoria sponge filling. When cut up I fear it became less of a one year old birthday treat and more a tribute to Se7en.

53

I’m glad to say neither the cake, nor the overwhelming nature of being centre of attention, phased Gryff. I can’t say he was quite as cool a customer when dealing with Guinea Pigs at the petting zoo however.

photo

Not all that glitters is gold

29 Apr

I previously blogged on why Michael Gove’s plans to increase the school day and reduce the school holidays made little sense in terms of educational performance and were not supported by international comparisons.

I thought I’d focus this blog on the impact the plans would have on the pupil and family.

Some parents may think ‘great these plans will help me with family holidays.’ The reality is that it is naïve to expect travel companies to do anything other than increase their prices if the window to take holidays is shortened. The result will either be more expensive holidays or more children being taken out of school during term time.

The other concern for families is that if schools vary their holidays it could cause chaos for those with two children in different schools. Imagine you have one child in a comprehensive and one in a primary school and those two schools have different holidays.  It is impossible for the family to have a holiday together without one child missing school.

Educationally it shouldn’t be overestimated that not everything children learn, especially the development of their social skills, is learnt in the classroom. It is important that children have life experiences outside a school setting.

We also know the reality is that children, especially young ones, are often exhausted at the end of the school day and long terms.

This isn’t to say that children shouldn’t have access to after school activities such as sport, drama, arts etc. and the majority of schools provide this in teacher’s spare time. However, just as holidays are essential to allow teachers to recharge, prepare and plan for the forthcoming academic year; children need that time also.

Of course what Michael Gove is really aiming for, as has been the driver behind the changes to pay and pensions, is the de-regulation of the school system. Why? Well by de-regulating education it is easier to open it up to private profit-making companies. So, if you are a parent thinking ‘I wouldn’t mind a longer school day’, take a second to think if you would also like your child’s education to be driven by profit margins. Do you want teachers who are focused on educational achievement or schools focused on squeezing every last penny saving out of your child’s future?

Costa – Leckwith

25 Apr

The Place

As a chain once you’ve seen one costa you’ve seen them all I guess.

The Hot Chocolate

Costa

Again with a chain you expect standards to be replicated across outlets and that is pretty much the case. This review of Costa in Taunton probably could be repeated word for word for Cardiff in terms of the hot chocolate.

The Carrot Cake

costa2

The spices and frosting were very good and on that basis it was enjoyable. It was let down a bit by the fact that the cake itself was rather dry. Having a middle tier of frosting did mask it to a certain degree but not enough that it didn’t detract from the overall flavour.

The Rest

This was a welcome pick me up after night of the Gryffalo teething left me a little on auto-pilot.

It was good to actually review a hot chocolate and carrot cake together for the first time in a while. However, I think after seeing that one Costa offered nothing new over another in future I won’t review chains more than once.


Costa
Leckwith Rd
Cardiff,
South Glamorgan
CF11 8AZ

Return to Brava

25 Apr

The Place

I’ve been feeling a little guilty after giving Brava, one of my favourite places to eat, a somewhat lukewarm carrot cake review a few weeks back. With that in mind, when dining here in the evening, I thought it only right to review the hot chocolate to balance things up.

The Hot Chocolate

Brava

I’m glad to say I can return from this visit to Brava with more favourable news. The cream is some of the best I’ve had on a hot chocolate. The drink itself is rich with dark chocolate and all round a really nice treat.  Well recommended.

The Carrot Cake

No carrot cake this time. Previous Brava carrot cake review can be found here.

The Rest

While this is generally a strict hot chocolate/carrot cake blog it would be remiss of me not to mention what was the finest cheesecake I’ve ever had.

Brava1

I had this white chocolate cheesecake in Brava a few weeks ago and it amazed me. With that in mind I assumed having it again would be a let-down but it most certainly was not. If you go here for a meal in the evening I strongly urge you to try it. It is Magic!

I also had the humous as a starter and the Lamb spinich balti as a main. Both I’m glad to say were very tasty. It is also worth stating that the service is absolutley fantastic.

Brava
71 Pontcanna Street,
Pontcanna,
Cardiff,
CF11 9HS

How literacy and numeracy tests put the Foundation Phase at risk; Speech to the Policy Forum for Wales Keynote Seminar

24 Apr

I gave a short speech on the introduction of national literacy and numeracy tests at a Policy Forum for Wales Keynote Seminar this morning. There was also an interesting Q&A session on the national literacy and numeracy framework and tests that I took part in along with Richard Goss (Head of Learning & Skills, CfBT), Eifion Evans (Director, Education and Community Services, Ceredigion County Council) and Darren Evans (Wales Reporter, TES).

Below is a copy of the speech:

I have been asked to speak today specifically on the impact of the new literacy and numeracy tests which are being introduced and the pressures they bring to teachers’ workloads. In examining the impact conducting these tests will have on classroom practitioners, it is important we do not forget the background to their introduction. There has been a huge increase in teaching workloads over the past few years, since the Education Minister’s ‘teaching makes a difference’ speech promised ‘no new initiatives’.

Indeed, since 2010 there have been, at the point of writing, 61 Welsh Government consultations for teachers to respond to, totalling over 2,500 pages. There has been a year on year increase since 2010 with 2013 looking like yet another record breaker. This is not to mention dysg newsletters; reams of guidance; ministerial statements with new instructions and dictates; the Robert Hill review into the future of education delivery; the qualifications review, and anything else my own workload has meant I’ve overlooked. Oh… add in the small matter of actually undertaking the daily role of a teacher’s planning, teaching and marking.

Teaching is fast becoming, if it hasn’t already become, the most regulated, scrutinised and bureaucratic profession in Wales. Whilst accountability and scrutiny are naturally important, even welcomed and expected by the profession itself, the current situation is becoming unsustainable for many.

Sitting these tests could take up to two weeks. Marking them is, perhaps optimistically, expected to take around 2 hours for 30 scripts according to the Welsh Government, with a significant amount of time lost in inputting the data scores of the students and the tests for evaluation. This is not even taking into account the hidden work that is required such as sanitising classrooms, covering wall displays, for example, to ensure the test guidelines are met. For teachers who have spent part of their Easter break in their classrooms re-doing their wall displays I’m sure that is seen as a complete farce.

We should not make the mistake of seeing these tests as an afternoon of inconvenience. They will have a significant impact on teacher’s time. The planning; reading the guidance; creating appropriate space for conducting the tests; the testing itself, and the marking and data delivery all add up to a noticeable amount of lost teaching time and added workload, pressure and stress.

SATs were abolished in Wales for a reason. What we are seeing is a return to SATs in Wales, but at much more damaging levels, given that the new tests will occur every single year between Year 2 and Year 9, making the current generation of pupils the most tested yet.

One of the most concerning aspects of the introduction of these tests is the way it undermines the whole ethos of teaching in Wales. For those teachers who were inspired and enthused by the Foundation Phase, this is a horror story. The foundation phase was introduced with a very specific style of learning, one, I believe, the vast majority of teachers and schools have supported and taken on board. The very nature of introducing formalised testing in this way contradicts and destabilises that approach. There is a potential for these tests to put at risk the benefits of the foundation phase, a policy that has received cross party support and gained international admiration, before they have even been appreciated and analysed.

This manner of testing,

– testing the ability of children to work unaided by peers or staff.
– testing the ability of children to focus for periods longer than they should or are able to. (from year 4 onwards pupils are expected to sit the tests in one go)
– testing the ability of children to answer questions for no purpose other than it is a test.

is in total opposition to the principles of Foundation Phase and the Skills Based Curriculum. We have to ask the question if this sounds the death knell for them before we have had a chance to analyse their impact.

In terms of getting to grips with the framework and tests, this has been made even more difficult since the Welsh Government have withdrawn two INSET which would have allowed teachers to access training to deliver the proposals. How are teachers really expected to change their schemes of work to accommodate such a significant change in the teaching ethos of a school without that vital run in time?

There are also serious questions about exactly how functional these tests will be. Individual schools will have a two week window to conduct these tests and the freedom to choose to do so in groups within their cohorts. Where are the guarantees that those children sitting the tests at the end of the window will not have already been made aware of their content by friends, or family, who have already sat the tests in their schools or schools in the surrounding areas, through word of mouth and social networking discussions? It is naive to think that the system isn’t open to manipulation, especially with such high pressure being placed on the children sitting them.

It is with these concerns of protecting our members and for educational purposes, that the NUT along with the NASUWT issued guidance to our members as to how they should approach the introduction of testing. That guidance stated that:

• Teachers should not be expected to administer the tests, unless they form part of a timetabled lesson and are undertaken in the teacher’s classroom.
• Teachers should not be expected to prepare their classrooms for the tests.
• Teachers should not be expected to mark the tests.
• Teachers should not be expected to input data from the tests.

That guidance is focused on ensuring that as little teaching time is lost as possible. The Welsh Government is always keen to stress that teaching and the quality of teaching is the key driver in education performance. It is good to say we have common ground on that. What we say is that you don’t build on that fundamental truth by reducing the time teachers have with pupils, and you don’t support teaching by turning your back on an ethos of teaching that is supported throughout Wales.

Longer Days, Shorter Holidays, Better Schools? Fat Chance

23 Apr

Michael Gove recently called for school days to be made longer and school holidays to be shortened. This appears sensible; after all, those pesky teachers really don’t work hard enough!  Or do they?

The Education Secretary in Westminster seems extremely focused on throwing out the idea of a skills based curriculum and replacing it one based around just recalling facts. With that in mind I thought he may appreciate some of the truths below.

Summer Holiday Time:

UK – 6 weeks
Singapore – 6 weeks
Germany – 6 weeks
Australia – 6 weeks
The Netherlands – 6 weeks

Austria – 7 weeks
Denmark – 7 weeks
Hong-Kong – 7 weeks
Switzerland – 7 weeks

Belgium – 8 weeks
Canada – 8 weeks
Sweden – 8 weeks
France – 8 weeks
Norway – 8 weeks

Finland – 10 weeks

USA – 12 weeks
Italy – 12 weeks

Turkey – 14 weeks

One of the top performers in international PISA tests was Hong Kong whose holidays are a week longer than those enjoyed by UK teachers. Honk Kong was followed by Finland, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia. The best-performing European countries included the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Switzerland and Estonia. Not one of these nations has shorter summer breaks than the UK. Many have longer. We should also remember that the UK has the least number of public holidays in Europe and one of the lowest numbers worldwide.

The reality is that the UK already has some of the shortest summer school holidays of any nation in the world. The idea that shorter summer holidays will lead to any improvement in standards simply does not stack up, especially when compared to other leading nations.

In regards to the length of the school day Michael Gove’s comments simply highlight his ignorance to the reality facing most teachers across the UK. I thought I would highlight this by keeping a diary of my own wife’s workload, a primary school teacher in the Rhondda. This is the hours she put in last week

Monday – 8am-5:30pm at school & 7:45pm-10pm working at home.

Tuesday – 8am-4:30pm at school & 7:30pm-9:30pm at home

Wednesday – 8am-4:30pm at school & 7:45pm-9:45pm at home

Thursday – 7:30pm-10:15pm at home

Friday – Free

Saturday – Free

Sunday – 7:15pm – 10:15pm at home

If you’re wondering why the 7pm evening starts it’s because between work finishing and working at home she is, rather inconveniently for Michael Gove, feeding, bathing and putting our baby to sleep.

The total hours worked over the week tallied up at 38.5. This would maybe be acceptable if you didn’t factor in the fact that my wife is a part time worker contracted Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only.

These figures are not for a particularly hectic week. Indeed, prior to us having a baby (there’s that inconvenient priority for Michael Gove again) my wife would also work most Friday nights and Saturday days while I would be at rugby, as well as Thursday and Friday school days as she was then a full time teacher. Nor are they for a particularly hard working teacher. By that I don’t mean my wife doesn’t work hard! She works extremely hard and is a damn good teacher, but her hours are no more or less than the dedication that you will see from the vast majority of teachers in Wales. Indeed, simply by examining the Facebook posts of her peers it is easy to see that her workload is reflected across dozens of other teachers in the Rhondda alone.

Some parents, who perhaps see children being in school as some sort of state funded childcare service rather than institutions dedicated to the academic and social development of students, may welcome Michael Gove’s plans. The warning I would give is be careful what you wish for. The consequences of these plans will be chaos, educationally for your child and for your family. I’ll post again about that impact at a later date.

Carrot Cake Ice Cream

19 Apr

As someone who loves a good carrot cake, and is not dismissive of the odd ice cream here and there, (Sub Zero formally Mr. Creemy of the Rhondda is the greatest place on earth) I’m amazed that it has taken me so long to put the two together. Driving home yesterday was the first time I actually thought of the possibility of carrot cake ice cream.

Thankfully the power of Google Images confirmed that I wasn’t living in a dream world and that the reality of this delight does indeed exist.

carrot-cake-ice-cream-895998l1

I have no idea of anywhere in Wales that does this but I will now focus a large part of my spare time trying to track down somewhere that does. Onwards with the quest!

Edit:

Turns out ben & Jerry’s used to do a carrot cake flavour but I think it’s been discontinued

bnj_walmart_carrot_cake

‘Ambition is Critical’ – (David Hughes not Dylan Thomas!)

18 Apr

Graduation-hats-flying1

I simply can’t agree with Wales’ new Oxbridge ambassador, Paul Murphy’s statement that a lack of ambition amongst teachers is the reason that there are a limited number of Welsh students gaining admittance to Oxford or Cambridge universities. In the first instance such a simplistic assessment too easily allows those universities to ignore their own elitist approach to student intake. Examining the annual intake of these institutions, it is quite clear to see that their student population fails to adequately reflect UK society.

In 2011 five schools (Eton, Westminster, Hills Road Sixth Form College, St Paul’s Boys and St Paul’s Girls) had more students accepted to Oxbridge than 2,000 other schools in the UK combined. Last year saw a 30 year high for students starting Cambridge from state schools, yet there were still around a third of students coming from private education. A freedom of information request published in 2012 showed that bright candidates from fee-paying schools were around 25% more likely to access an Oxford course than those from state education.

These are narrow parameters by anyone’s standards and highlight the barriers put in place for Welsh students wishing to study at either college. Indeed the report published by Paul Murphy noted that a student from Hertfordshire was ten times more likely to be offered a place at Oxford or Cambridge than a student applying from the Welsh Valleys. There is no doubt that this level of rejection is a significant factor in the decisions of some in Wales to choose to apply elsewhere.

There has been a drop in the number of students from Wales gaining places at the two institutions in recent years. In 2008 there were 96 admissions to Oxbridge from Wales. That figure was 76 in the past year. However, I do not accept that we have seen a four year decline in teacher’s ambition for their students. The reality is that there are a range of factors that impact on this statistic.

The economic downturn has put ever greater financial strain on individuals and families. Studying in a closer proximity to home is now not just an attractive proposal but in some cases a necessity. The increase of tuition fees is also a major consideration. Although the Welsh Government have taken the bold and positive step of supporting students in Wales with their tuition fees policy, it is still a big factor in the choices of students to attend university at all, let alone one further afield than home. Language also plays a role as students wishing to pursue qualifications through the medium of Welsh will inevitably do so at a Welsh university. We should also look at subject preference. While there is no doubt that Oxford and Cambridge bring a heavyweight of reputation, students will examine the expertise of Welsh universities as part of their decision making process. If you were to study international politics, for example, there is a strong case to stay in Wales given Aberystwyth University houses the oldest international politics department of its kind in the world, one of the largest in Europe and one which has an international standard reputation. The strengths of Welsh universities in attracting students of the highest caliber, who could apply to Oxford or Cambridge, should not impulsively be seen as a national weakness.  (I should declare an interest as a former Aberystwyth university politics student – although neither Oxford nor Cambridge were destinations I was likely to travel).

Aberystwyth Mid Wales - Coast Towns & Villages (Aberystwyth seafront – who wouldn’t want to go to uni here?)

A further consideration is the legitimacy given to the Welsh Baccalaureate by Oxford and Cambridge admission tutors. Paul Murphy’s report noted that, “discussions with admissions tutors raised concerns with the Welsh Baccalaureate.” Indeed Oxford’s Undergraduate Admissions Director expressed concerns that Welsh students studying the Welsh Bacc could be “disadvantaged.” That has to be factored into the drop in numbers over recent years. Some of the criticisms of the Welsh Bacc have already been addressed of course through the qualifications review conducted by Huw Evans. This includes the introduction of grading the qualification which will strengthen its appeal and hopefully increase the numbers of Welsh students that are able to gain places on Oxbridge courses.

There is no doubt that teachers play an important role in developing students academically and socially for life after school. Their recommendations carry a lot of weight. However, my experience from speaking to teachers in Wales, some of whom are Oxbridge graduates themselves, is that it gives them immense pleasure and pride to be able to see one of their pupils go on to study at one of the big two UK universities. Where the potential, and willingness, is there for a student to apply to Oxford or Cambridge teachers will do their utmost to see that turned into a reality.

Update:

Here’s the Western Mail article on this issue with comments from me.

The Coffee House at Cadwaladers – St David’s II

12 Apr

The Place

photo

An open plan area in the food market of St David’s II. It has quite quaint decor, almost like a country club in a modern shopping hall.

The service was not the best. Even after being asked to repeat my order no less than six times, they still got the drinks wrong.

The Hot Chocolate

Having already had a hot chocolate that day I just had a diet coke. I am mindful I can’t recall the last time I blogged about a hot chocolate and carrot cake at the same time. Poor planning.

The Carrot Cake

photo5

The Coffee House is right across from the Muffin Break. While it has yet to be reviewed, I know from past experience, Muffin Break do a stunning carrot cake. Given the Coffee House is a few yards away it has to be judged against that standard. Sadly there is little comparison. The frosting was moist and light but the cake itself was bland and dry. Disappointing.

The Rest

photo6

The food generally is limited to just sandwiches and paninis but I have to say my hot Philadelphia beef panini was very nice.

The Coffee House at Cadwaladers
8 Bridge Street Arcade,
St Davids Dewi Sant,
Cardiff
CF10 2EF

Atlantic Coffee – Castle Quarter Arcade Cardiff

12 Apr

The Place

photo2

I didn’t get to appreciate the place much as Gryff’s crying meant we were forced outside as part of the social etiquette of having a loud baby. The seats outside were nice I guess. (In fairness I should point out that the owners of Atlantic Coffee didn’t force a young family into the street! In fact they urged us to stay inside but I didn’t want to put others off their drinks/food.)

The Carrot Cake

This looked pretty spectacular but it was a push to try at 10am. I did make a mental note to revisit at a later day.

The Hot Chocolate

photo1

On the downside there was no cream but a nice foam and a good coco dusting. There was a very sugary taste, which generally may be a bit too sweet, but as I’ve been dieting and depriving myself of such things it was a welcome treat.

Atlantic Coffee
13 High St
Cardiff
CF10 1AX

029 2023 2202