Archive | July, 2013

The case for creative education

29 Jul

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“We are educating people out of their creative capacities.” — Ken Robinson

I was listening recently to these three excellent presentations by Sir Ken Robinson.

I was particularly interested in the concerns Sir Ken had about how education policies in the USA, although you could argue globally, are leading to a reduction in creative thinking within schools. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) disciplines are clearly vitally important to both children’s development and the wider economy. There is, rightly, a focus on literacy and numeracy in schools in Wales. But as Sir Ken states, they are important but they are not sufficient to a rounded education. Just because we have a focus on STEM disciplines doesn’t mean we should ignore the creative subjects of arts, music and so forth. These subjects not only actually help develop the way pupils think, complimenting the focus on literacy and numeracy, but also speak to the creative parts of a child’s mind that otherwise will remain inactive. Marginalising creative subjects is educating the imagination out of individuals. Failing to stimulate the minds of pupils will quickly switch them off education and therefore hinder any progress in literacy and numeracy, as well as contributing to generational problems with disengagement with the school system.

In speaking about this disengagement Sir Ken notes that America has a high level of pupil drop out, especially in comparison to Finland whose creative education ensures very low numbers falling through the cracks. On a positive note absenteeism and individuals leaving school without qualifications are both going in the right direction here in Wales. However, we are at a crossroads in educational policy and must consider the wider implications of a narrow focus leading to that work potentially being undone. Feedback from teachers who have recently conducted the standardised literacy and numeracy tests suggest the impact on students well-being, and their investment in the school community, has been alarming. A further point made in these presentations is the impact of standardised testing and how instead of supporting education it often obstructs it, echoing the blog post I previously published here. Sir Ken is completely correct when he highlights that standardised testing has its place, but they should be diagnostic supporting education rather than driving the direction it takes.

All the high performing nations in the world do two things. They offer a creative approach to education, individualising teaching and learning. Secondly they empower schools by accepting the discretion and professional judgments of teachers. Those nations that have moved to a system where creativity is stifled by standardisation and where teacher’s freedoms has been undermined by an approach of central government imposed regulation, are seeing a decline in quality. An important consideration for us here in Wales.

I’d very much recommend listening to Sir Ken Robinson’s presentations as he puts the above points across far better than I and presents in a very funny and engaging way.

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Me & the CIP…..R

26 Jul

It has been a good month for me and the CIPR. Firstly I found out that I had passed my Crisis Communications Diploma with a distinction.

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Then I achieved accredited practitioner status.

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Keeping the CIPR good news coming I’m really pleased to have been shortlisted for the CIPR Cymru Outstanding Young Communicator award as well as a nomination for best internal publication for the members magazine I help put together with others at NUT Cymru.

All this and the added bonus of retaining chartered marketer status for another year with the CIM.

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The best result however was this congrats on my success from the Gryffalo

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Wallys Kaffeehaus – Royal Arcade; Cardiff

25 Jul

The Place

Wally’s Kaffeehaus is located above the delicatessen of the same name.

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The deli has some absolutely lovely produce from chocolates and ice cream to cheeses and meats and is well worth a visit on its own.

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The cafe is located upstairs and is pleasant enough with nice staff, if not fully in keeping with the vibe of the decor downstairs.

The Hot Chocolate

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After the first taste I was enjoying a strong dark chocolate flavour, akin to Bournville. Sadly from then on the taste was more watery and bland and overall the hot chocolate was a disappointing.

On the positive side it was accompanied by a nice caramel biscuit, free biscuits always being a bonus. I’m not really sure about the addition of a glass of water but I guess it was nice to cleanse the palate.

The Carrot Cake

I didn’t have the cake but it, and an array of other cakes, looked absolutely fantastic, therefore despite the disappointing drink I will return for cake.

Testing Times

22 Jul

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I’ve used the above cartoon before after seeing it during a lecture by Pasi Sahlberg. I think it very simply highlights some of the unfair, if unintended, problems with standardised testing.

I’ve recently been reading the excellent critique of standardised testing, ‘Education by Numbers; The Tyranny of Testing’, by Warwick Mansell. While the content is focussed largely on the testing regime of English schools during the New Labour years, the warnings it offers about the impacts of these policies are very apt for us in Wales.  One of the key questions asked in the book, which is often echoed amongst practicing teachers, is “where is the independent evidence that hyper-accountability has improved education?”  After several cross examinations of results the chapter dedicated to this question concludes;

“Pursuing results almost as ends in themselves has been forced on schools, in their desperation to fulfil the requirements of hyper-accountability.  But this grades race is ultimately self-defeating.  It does not guarantee better-educated pupils, just better statistics for schools and the government.”

This is a very important point.  In Wales we do of course have this style of tests for literacy and numeracy for all pupils from year 2 – 9. Pasi Sahlberg has already warned it’s destined to fail.  While it is inevitable that schools and pupils, and potentially the Welsh Government, will be judged on an annual basis on performance in these tests I’m not convinced that the abilities of children will improve as a result.  As the saying goes “weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.”

There is a lot that can be done to support teachers and pupils in improving numeracy and literacy standards.  Some of it is being implemented by the Welsh Government.  Some of it is not.  However, it is hard to find many, if any, teachers that are working on the front line in classrooms who believe that these tests will contribute positively to that aspiration.  At least now they have seen the tests in action.  While I have no idea of the results of this years standaridsed tests, and can’t predict the future, I would suggest that in time results will improve.  Will that mean that standards have improved?  Possibly, but the reality in regards to the test scores is that children and teachers ability to work towards the tests will be the determining factor in achieving the highest scores.

NUT Cymru have been consulting with our members and the feedback has been enlightening. From the impact of the tests on parental relationships, content, workload and most importantly how the tests have been received by pupils and what the pedagogical impact has been, the results have been wide-ranging. What has been pleasing for those that have opposed the introduction of these tests in Wales is the commitment given in a recent Ministerial Statement that the new Education Minister is willing to look constructively at feedback. While this may not, at least in the short-term, lead to the tests being abolished, it will hopefully address some of the specific concerns about the implementation and nature of these specific tests.

For further reading there are two really excellent articles on this theme on the CEA website here and here.

What to do about supply teaching?

19 Jul

I was interested to read Simon Thomas AM’s proposal for a national co-operative for supply teachers in yesterday’s Western Mail.

Campaigning for better protection and a fairer deal for supply teachers is something the NUT  has done for some time.  Indeed we have raised the issue with Simon Thomas, as well as the other spokespeople at the Assembly in recent meetings.  I have to say there is an almost universal recognition that the system as it currently exists is not working.

At present we are still waiting for the joint Wales Audit Office/Estyn review into this issue to know what, if any, changes can be made in future. Given the pace of change with the vast majority of changes seen in Welsh education over the past few years, it is a tad frustrating that this particular report has seemingly been gathering dust, especially considering the short notice unions and other stakeholders were given to respond over the Christmas and New Year period earlier this year.

One of the issues that we get the most calls about in the NUT Cymru office is the treatment of teachers who work through supply agencies.  It is an issue that has cropped up around five times today alone.  The main complain is that individuals are subjected to greatly reduced pay and conditions through working as part of an agency, even though they have the same qualifications and expertise as members on permanent contracts.  It is having a real impact on morale in classrooms across Wales and it is time something was done to address it.

For those that argue “it’s their choice to work with an agency,” the reality is that for most teachers who do it is the only way they can access work.  In some areas of Wales local authorities have strict guidance that forces schools to use agencies and in some cases specific supply agencies.  This gives a monopoly to private companies that straightjacket teachers into having to accept poorer terms of work or else have no way of earning a living.  Many people find themselves in a position where they rightfully believe they are not treated fairly but are afraid that if they come forward with those complaints they will be blacklisted and won’t have the opportunity to work in future.

It is even a case that some supply agencies are ignoring their obligations under the Agency Workers Regulations 2010.  Agencies are required to pay supply teachers the standard rates if they are in post for 12 weeks or more but often we are seeing teachers reaching that threshold and either being forced into contracts that depress their rights or are simply let go and no longer able to access work.  NUT Cymru put forward a motion, which was universally supported, at the last WTUC conference in Llandudno calling on the Welsh Government to work with partners in local government to address this issue.  The union has also asked the Welsh Government to examine a possible strategy that provides a guaranteed offer of work for 12 months for all newly qualified teachers in a maintained school when individuals achieve qualified teacher status to tackle this problem at an early stage.

Not only are standards hit by the low morale of supply teachers being mistreated by agencies, but they also do not get the same levels of CPD, if any at all, as contracted teachers.  This leads to the abilities and pedagogical knowledge of supply practitioners becoming stagnant, even though they themselves have a firm commitment to professional development.

The current set up is just not sustainable.  Agencies are creating a race to the bottom with standards and morale being the first to see a decline.  What Simon Thomas has proposed may need further discussion but with the way teachers are currently treated, and seeing the impact first hand with calls on an almost hourly basis to the NUT Cymru office, every alternative needs to be explored.

Coffee #1 – Wood Street Cardiff

12 Jul

The Place

Located near the train station, Coffee#1 is ideal for those either getting into Cardiff or killing time before catching a train elsewhere. It is quite small inside so seating could be a problem but I can’t complain that I’ve ever had an issue there.

The Hot Chocolate

I have previously blogged about Coffee#1’s other outlet in Pontcanna here.  In that blog I discussed the array of different hot chocolate’s on offer with a commitment to trying some.  So, with that in mind I popped in to the Wood Street venue to give one a whirl.

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I opted for a hazelnut hot chocolate. The cream was nice and refreshing and the chocolate flakes added to the texture. The drink itself had a good, strong hazelnut flavour; always handy when its a hazelnut hot chocolate. There was quite a syrupy taste which may be too rich for some. Personally I have a very sweet tooth and so that worked well for me.

All in all this was a nice variation on the traditional hot chocolate and gets a big thumbs up from me.

Dylan’s – Porth

8 Jul

The Place

I’ve blogged about Dylan’s before. It’s a nice place and worth a visit if you are in the Rhondda.

The Carrot Cake

As stated above I’ve blogged about the carrot cake at Dylan’s before. I didn’t have it on this visit but you can read about the last time I did here.

The Hot Chocolate

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As you can see from the photo the hot chocolate looked really enticing and I had high expectations. Sadly they were not met. The cream was ice-cold, almost ice cream quality, which was odd and didn’t work. Within the cream there was marshmallows which is something I can’t fathom in a hot chocolate. To be fair I didn’t order the drink so could very well be a mistake on behalf of the person that did rather than the staff.

The drink itself was very bland with little chocolate flavour. All in all a disappointment.

The Rest

While the hot chocolate was a let down I did drink it in the sun outside while watching a Lions series win in Australia. There are worse things to do on a Saturday morning.