Archive | October, 2013

In Conversation With…. Aled Roberts AM

28 Oct

In the second of the ‘In Conversation With…..’ audio blogs I was pleased to be able to sit down with Aled Roberts AM. (Recorded October 22nd)


Aled has been the Welsh Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Education, Spokesperson for Children and Young People and Spokesperson for the Welsh Language since he was elected to the National Assembly for Wales as a regional Assembly Member for the North Wales Region. Prior to that he was the leader of Wrexham County Council.

Please click below to hear the conversation where we discussed the recent budget negotiations to secure additional funding for the Pupil Deprivation Grant; the current state of education in Wales; the role of the local authority and a reaction to Huw Lewis AM’s recent ‘Reform, Rigour and Respect’ speech.

Alternativly you can listen on soundcloud here.

The Carrot Cake

All participants in the audio blog series usually will get carrot cake from me but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t get a chance to pick one up on this occasion. I owe you a slice Aled. Sorry!


The future of the carrot cake diaries

26 Oct

I imagine that in twenty years time this blog will be up there alongside the huffington post in popularity. That’s not unrealistic I take it?

So with that in mind I think it’s appropriate that I do some succession planning. These carrot cake treats have recently found their way into our home via my good wife.

photo 2

As you can see the Gryffalo is a willing apprentice to the blog and is already familiarizing himself with the quality of flavours on offer in the world of carrot cake. (Having tried some of these I have to say they actually do pack quite a lot of spices).

photo 1

Oh what a day it will be when me and the Gryffalo are cracking out proper carrot cakes together. The futures bright, the futures…erm…carrot

Home Made Hot Chocolate – Chocca-Mocca

24 Oct

Angela Jardine, who has previously featured on the blog in posts about education and carrot cake, has now successfully compleated the holy trinity of the carrot cake diaries by sparking a hot chocolate post.

As a congratulations for being a CIPR Young Communicator of the Year finalist (or perhaps commiserations for not winning) she was kind enough to present me with a home-made hot chocolate to try.

photo 1

She also gave me a glass to pour it into and an accompanying selection of caramelised almonds.

photo 2

To prove the NUT Cymru executive are sticklers for details she even remembered the milk.

photo 3

To do it justice I followed the directions pretty much to the letter and this was the end result.


This was quite easily the nicest hot chocolate I’ve ever had at home. It was extremely rich and very chocolatey. As far as a hot chocolate goes it ticked all the boxes. It was a comforting, ideal home-made hot chocolate in front of the TV. (I was watching The Tunnel to give you the true sense of place – not a patch on The Bridge).

The only thing missing is that it could do with adding cream in future.

Diolch Angela

Tesco Talbot Green

21 Oct

The Place

Tesco is a Tesco I guess. There’s not much to say beyond that really?

The Carrot Cake

photo 3

We bought the cake for a lunch we had with friends. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality. The cake was moist and spicy with good frosting. I was a little disappointed as I like an extra helping of icing running through the cake but overall it was very good value and a refreshing end to lunch.

The Hot Chocolate

photo 1

The Tesco cafe serves costa hot chocolates/coffee. I’ve reviewed Costa outlets twice in the past at Leckwith and Taunton. I would say this was probably the least satisfying of the three.

The hot chocolate came boiling hot. I guess you could argue that better this than cold. Still, it was so hot it took forever to cool down and drink. I guess that’s just me being pedantic mind.

I ordered a medium which was too big. In fact it was huge. While granted there was a small on offer you can’t help feel the medium was in fact large. Again me being pedantic perhaps.

There was no whipped cream, which was available with previous visits to other Costas. That was disappointing, especially given it was so hot. Having whipped cream would have cooled it down when drinking and always adds to the hot chocolate experience.

The drink itself was a bit weak and a little watery. All in all a disappointment.

The Rest

photo 2

I’m starting to believe the Gryffalo is a visionary. Here he is developing his new creation of an omelette and hot chocolate combo. Not for my palate I must say.

CIPR Cymru Awards

21 Oct

It was a good night for me and the NUT at the recent CIPR Cymru annual awards.

As a Union I was really pleased that our magazine, ‘Athrawon Cymru,’ won the Silver Award for Best Internal Publication.

It’s a magazine that we try hard to ensure is a must read for members and offers a lot of advice and support as well as acting as a conversation bridge between the members and officers. I know that’s very much ‘PR speak’ but I do believe it’s true. It is an important part of the Union’s communications.

Personally I was a tad disappointed that I didn’t win Outstanding Young Communicator. I knew I was up against some good candidates but there’s always that part of you that wants to win. That being said having just read the eventual winner, Mitchell Gadd’s, entry I think it is more than fair to say the best nominee won. Very much deserved. My only real gripe is that I have gone from a candidate for Outstanding Young Communicator to someone now too old to be considered for the award. Father time is a cruel man.

The full list of award winners and nominees can be found here.

Reform, Rigour and Respect

16 Oct

“The sector will get my absolute respect. In return I expect a sense of absolute responsibility.” – Huw Lewis

Last night Huw Lewis delivered his first real keynote speech since becoming Education Minister. I have to say the tone was one that has been very well received by teachers on the frontline in Wales.

It was very heartening to read such a collaborative approach to education being set from the top. Many of the policies of the Welsh Government, such as the lead / emerging schools programme, are based on ensuring peer-to-peer support. A collaborative agenda is at the heart of the improvement services but that has to be lead from the front. The Minister’s speech last night was certainly a good packaging of that ambition.

“I want to say at the outset that I am always open to dialogue – I do not think that I, or the Department for Education & Skills, or even the Labour Party – can claim a monopoly on good ideas.”

The Minister also stated how dialogue with the unions, which averted a strike here in Wales, was based not on capitulation, or horse-trading – but through negotiation.

This whole emphasis on an open door policy of discussion is one that will make for a healthy debate within the education sector. No doubt there will be disagreements between local authorities, unions, the Welsh Government, academics, schools and so forth but having an opportunity to share those discussions helps foster an environment where all parties can take ownership for delivery.

It was particularly pleasing to see the Minister’s comments on the respect of the profession. There were positive comments on the Master’s programme and Professional Learning Communities. Teachers will be delighted that continued professional development, or the lack of it, was placed firmly on the agenda. Huw Lewis AM was exactly right when he said;

“if we want to instil more respect in the profession, then we must take the issue of teacher training – and continual professional development – more seriously than we have to date.”

The recognition that CPD has not been given enough focus is important. It will be equally critical that these words are backed up with action and greater access to CPD is forthcoming as it is a constant complain from within the profession.

A further important element of the speech was the focus on reforming Key Stage 3 and examining the curriculum. This is a really vital consultation and hopefully will help tie in the already innovative approaches that have been taken at the foundation phase and with Welsh qualifications at GCSE and A Levels.

The final point I want to touch on is perhaps the headline of the piece of moving tackling the gap between poverty and attainment to the central focus. There will be questions about what impact this will have for the priorities of literacy and numeracy. I have to say I do have some initial concerns about how teachers who will have had the importance of literacy and numeracy as the main priorities drilled into them over the past few years will find the transition. More of a worry is will this promotion of the attainment gap to the main priority allow local authorities and regional consortia to take their eye off the ball in relation to the support that is offered to schools for literacy and numeracy. That would be a major step backwards.

That being said the increased focus on the issues of poverty and attainment are very welcome and in no way should conflict with the focus on literacy and numeracy. In fact tackling the former certainly helps dramatically with the latter. Getting the very early years, including prior to children starting school, right is essential to closing the attainment gap and setting pupils on the right path.

The Health Of The Profession

15 Oct

In a post looking at the use of supply teachers recently I briefly touched on the mental health issues faced by teachers. I wanted to take the time to write a bit more in-depth about that here.

The recent Times Educational Supplement survey showed startling evidence as to the way morale and motivation have been hit in Wales with 73% of teachers and 75% of heads saying it had decreased as a result of changes to policy.

This concern is not simply one that hits teachers in services, it is actively driving talented and experienced practitioners away from a role they have trained and dedicated themselves to for years. A 2001 NUT survey showed that 56% of individuals who were leaving the teaching profession did so siting stress/ill-health as a factor.

This study, conducted by Cardiff University and published by the Health and Safety Executive, provides illuminating evidence as to the nature of stress encountered by teachers. Although the report was put together some time ago its findings are still very applicable to the current state of the profession. While the average occupation saw around 20% of staff reporting high stress the teaching profession returned a 41% rate. Nurses and managers were the two professions that followed closest to teaching, yet even they had a far lower level of stress at 31% and 27% respectively.

The below stats from the Office of National Statistics highlight the extreme end of this issue.

Total numbers of deaths by suicide and indeterminate intent for teachers aged 20-64

England and Wales

Year – 2008 / 2009 / 2010 / 2011

Male – 23 / 37 / 26 / 26

Female – 12 / 28 / 16 / 31

Total Persons – 35 / 65 / 42 / 57

Teachers suicide rates are disproportionately high. There was an 80% rise between 2008 and 2009 and that jump has yet to return to 2008 levels. Even where it dropped in 2010 the most recent 2011 figures show that there was another spiked increase. These figures were published in May 2013. With the way the teaching profession has continued to be undermined in the public eye over the past two years; coupled with attacks on pay and pensions following years of public sector pay being frozen, I would not be shocked if 2012 and 2013 figures showed an increase. I sincerely hope I am wrong on that.

Of course not every teacher suicide will be directly linked to the pressures of the job. However we cannot ignore the link between high suicide rates amongst the profession and the ongoing shocking levels of stress and anxiety in post.

I’m hoping to do some more work on this issue over the coming weeks and will aim to publish a further post on the issue at that time. In the meantime for further reading and support it is worth checking out the NUT guidance on stress management and teachers support.

Are we making the best use of school buildings?

9 Oct

Back in April I blogged on the misguided approach Michael Gove was taking in terms of re-structuring the school day. His basic ideas are utterly ignorant, perhaps deliberately so, to the reality of the existing working hours of a teacher.

However, while I certainly do not see the educational merit of extending the school day, let alone the ability of doing it without fundamentally damaging the performance of the teaching profession, there is a potential question to be asked about the use of school facilities before and after school.

There is a clear argument for the school building being utilised beyond those school hours. In the morning before school there’s the opportunity for greater proliferation of free breakfast clubs operated by non-teachers. The Children’s Commissioners report into child poverty 2012 highlighted that just under a third of schools in Wales still do not operate a free school breakfast scheme. The health and educational benefits of this scheme are numerous and it should be an ambition to achieve as close to 100% take up as possible.

Naturally the bulk of the day will be a traditional school session but once the educational day is up the school building should be taken over for after school clubs. Going back to a blog post from the end of last month, these are ideal places for the “priorities” that are sometimes marginalised because of national objectives, to be explored in greater detail. After school sports clubs giving a focus on PE or arts clubs bringing out the creative culture of an individual. Again, there is no reason why these can not be driven by non-teaching individuals. Community groups, individuals and organizations with expertise in their fields.

Now more than ever this work is vital. For example, we are seeing some positive steps in PE participation. Sport’s Wales School Sports Survey, published today, shows that almost 50% more children are taking part in sport and physical activity regularly than two years ago. That is great news and a platform to be built on. However, the inevitable cuts to leisure services that will be coming from local authorities as a result of the squeezed settlement they have received from the Welsh Government, following cuts to its own funding from Westminster, will have a negative impact on that progress. Facilities will be closed and opportunities lost. Against that backdrop utilising school buildings in this way makes even more sense.

Of course I am mindful that in many schools this is already happening. More likely than not it is teachers going above and beyond the call of duty that run these after school clubs. However, where this is not taking place we should be opening up our schools as community facilities; but we should not just stop at the school week. Far better use of school facilities can be opened up on weekends and particularly during the holidays. One of the big issues for parents and pupils is what to do during the summer holiday. Providing facilities and a productive environment during this period will help students to continue to proactively occupy themselves with worthwhile and fulfilling activities throughout the summer and tackle the problems of affordable childcare in the process. This is something that is done with a much greater focus in Europe than here in the UK at present.

To do this of course there would have to be an investment in child-care and/or the running of these clubs. While the initial outlay is of course money that would need to be found in a very difficult economic climate, it really is a case of investing to save. The proposals would be a win – win for everyone. For the students there are obvious benefits. There are clear educational, physical and social reasons to establish these opportunities. From developing a better communications skills while receiving a healthy, nutritious start to the day all the way to the creativity and health benefits of mixing in a socially responsible after school setting. There’s the opportunity to structure clubs in a way that they build on the educational values of that day’s school activities. These after school clubs would also be drivers in the engagement of children that are often potentially absent from school, developing a relationship that can translate into educational attainment and reduced absenteeism. It will also re-establish the school as the heartbeat of a community, something that is an essential component to its success and a role that, unfortunately, has diminished over recent years.

In ensuring that such facilities are run by non-teachers that would free those individuals up to continue with the work they would already be doing outside school hours, taking away some of the additional work they do in schools and creating a better work-life balance which in turn creates a more productive and motivated workforce. We should of course not stop any teacher that proactively wishes to take these after school clubs. Many do just that out of the love of their jobs. This would simply allow that to be an option rather than a necessity that often creates conflicting work pressures. The clubs, before and after school, would create employment opportunities for individuals to gain experience and a living wage. It in turn tackles issues around helping to support people out of unemployment, reducing the welfare bill in the process. Creating these opportunities as standard in our community would have the additional benefit of supporting working parents in terms of their child care costs, allowing them to continue to work in the knowledge their child is in a safe and productive environment.

Finally, we are seeing a huge investment in Welsh schools as part of the 21C Schools programme, albeit an investment far below what was initially outlined as necessary by the WLGA. Still, what better way to stretch that money further, and get even more for the taxpayer’s pound, than to extend the use of schools. It is not simply funding for new and improving schools but funding for a new and improving community development hubs.

There will be barriers in the way of this proposal. There will no doubt be issues around child safety, child protection, legal and insurance concerns. However, working with schools and local authorities to widen the role os school buildings in the community, while creating a hyper local economy and reducing the pressures of teachers workloads, is certainly an ambition worth exploring.

What’s wrong with banding – Part III

3 Oct

I’ve posted in recent weeks two key problems with school banding. Firstly I examined the problem regarding the methodology by which school bandings are established. I then looked at the problems that arose from boiling the overall school banding indicators down into one final score. Today I am looking at the length of time between publishing the banding scores.

Aside from the obvious issues associated with the parental and media sensationalism associated with annual school bandings, and the impact that has on pupil enrolment and staff morale, there is also a significant issue with regards to how fair an annual assessment is to the perception of school performance.
Each year a school can have a very different set of pupils coming through its doors. Given the importance stressed on specific indicators such as GCSE passes in English, Welsh and Mathematics it would only take a few less or few more passes in either to make a significant difference. We saw with the way Ysgol Tryfan, formally the highest ranked school in the whole of Wales in the bandings of 2011, dropped to band 4 in 2012 just how volatile the system is.

If banding has taught us anything it’s that it is extremely difficult to make a fair judgement on the performance of any given school based on just one years’ data. There are so many variables that are easily distorted by just a small change in the nature and abilities of an individual cohort that an annual indicator is really no indicator at all.

What would be more meaningful is if the bandings were published on a longer cycle; every 3-5 years for example. This would at least provide a picture that was a reflection of a longer period of performance that could account for any particularly high or low performing cohorts. The bandings would then be more about the schools rather than about the one class of pupils travelling through them at any given time.