Archive | December, 2013

The Great NUT Cymru Xmas Bake Off

16 Dec

Forget PISA tests it was the results of the Great NUT Cymru Xmas Bake Off that has had the education world on the edge of its seat this year.  My entry was an improved version of my Carrot Cake.  The significant changes I made included doubling the amount of mixed spices and ground cinnamon I included; using buttercream instead of cream cheese icing and the decorative NUT marzipan carrots.  I did intend to cover the whole cake in icing but it didn’t happen, which I think was an error on my behalf.

On the presentation I think the carrots gave it a bit of glamour but there’s a fair bit of work to go in the icing stakes.  It certainly could have looked prettier but I wasn’t too disappointed.  Feedback on the taste was very positive and I felt I was in with an outside chance.

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There where some other cracking entires mind as seen below.

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Christine’s Pear and pecan cake

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Glesni’s Xmas tree themed fruit cake

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Lisa’s Christmas Baileys Log

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Andrea’s Cherry Brandy Chocolate Pots. 

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And finally, Debbie’s Cherry Bakewell Tart

In a contest that the judges took painstakingly serious, the eventual winner was………

….The bakewell tart.  Delicious it was too.

The Hath Booker Prize

16 Dec

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I started this year determined to read a lot more than 2012.  My reading for pleasure unfortunately didn’t get off to the best start as I spent the first few months undertaking a CIPR Diploma in Crisis Communications.  While that was really enjoyable it did hamper the list of books I wanted to read.  I did however end up reading about 25 PR text books, countless journals and academic papers.  I eventually did get around to reading a few.  Some were great, some forgettable, but here’s the list in no particular order.

  • Devotion of suspect X – Keigo Higashino
  • The hundred year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
  • The psychopath test – Jon Ronson
  • Superfreakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner
  • Call for the dead – John Le Carre
  • The Spy who came in from the cold – John Le Carre
  • A murder of quality – John Le Carre
  • The looking glass war – John Le Carre
  • A small town in Germany – John Le Carre
  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • The prime ministers who never were – Francis Beckett
  • Before I go to sleep – SJ Watson
  • Rush of blood – Mark Bilingham
  • The unlikely pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Finnish Lessons – Pasi Sahlberg
  • Attachments – Rainbow Powell
  • Education by numbers – Warwick Mansell
  • The Collini Case – Ferdinand von Schirach
  • Long walk to freedom – Nelson Mandela

 Top Three:

A small town in Germany – John Le Carre:

As you’ll see from the above list I developed a slight obsession with John Le Carre this year.  I’ve made it a priority to crack on with the rest of his back catalogue in 2014 and am currently reading ‘Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.’  I enjoyed all the books by Le Carre I read this year but it was ‘A small town in Germany,’ that I had the most pleasure from.  I have to say it was a close call with ‘The spy who came in from the cold.’  I loved the slow burn of that book and the tension that Le Carre maintained.  I also think Alec Leamas is one of the best literary characters I’ve ever come across.  Still in the end it was a small town that won out.

The plot (without giving away any spoilers) revolves around the investigations of Alan Turner into the disappearance of British Embassy worker Leo Harting.  This book really typifies Le Carre’s style of creating authentic settings and intriguing plots combined with a poetic turn of phrase.  I was immersed in the feel of the book with its fast paced dialogue.  If anyone decided to start reading John Le Carre I would recommend starting from the very beginning but if not you could do a lot worse than jumping in here.

Superfreakonomics – Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner

I’m genuinely someone who sticks to fictional novels so it is a tad surprising that both this book, and the below final top three entry, are both non-fiction.  This was given to me as a Christmas present last year by my brother but I only got around to reading it in April.  It is a sequel to the ‘Freakonomics’ book, which I haven’t read, but it isn’t a series you need to read in order.

The book is essentially a series of economic articles that look at various theories applied to everyday scenarios or unusual settings.  These ranged from examining altruism in the context of civic society; the impact of television on crime rates; how the geography or month of your birth impacts on your life chances to microeconomics in the context of developing financial awareness amongst monkeys.

My lack of financial and economic background means that I couldn’t really critique the actual hypothesise that were being put forward.  However, that didn’t stop me from really enjoying the innovative ways in which the chapters were written and was certainly left thinking about these issues long after I finished reading.

The Psychopath Test – Jon Ronson

I picked this book up in a nice little London bookshop when I had to kill some time before a lecture at the CIPR building.  It generally covers Jon Ronsons experiences of interacting with purported psychopaths and those that treat and identify them.  It takes a broad approach to the realities and misconceptions of what we think when we hear the word psychopath.

The style of the book was a real bonus of the writing.  It was engaging, funny and informative to the point that it read more like a novel in places.  However, the jumping between different case studies and areas of investigation never really gave any in-depth analysis to one specific issue.  This wasn’t a real complaint from me.  I wasn’t really intending to study psychopaths but it could leave people potentially with a somewhat misrepresented view of the condition.  Indeed, the main problem with this book is that in making the compelling case for identifying the traits of psychopaths I was left basically assuming that everyone I knew was a potential case in point.

It does somewhat trivialise the condition and the treatment but then I don’t really think anyone should be reading this book to get a full picture.  It is more an overview of one man’s experiences as an investigative journalist.  Taken in that content it is entertaining and opens up the reader to the idea of studying the details to a greater extent in other forms.

Next year I hope to read far more and so any recommendations very welcome.

Assessment in the Foundation Phase: The Dangers of Curriculum Reform

13 Dec

I’m a huge supporter of the Foundation Phase and have previously blogged about why it’s the right approach for Wales’ youngest children.

It is with that in mind that I am concerned about the introduction of year on year expectations to be assessed against the Literacy and Numeracy Framework as part of the curriculum review; phase 1.

My main fear is that this will undermine the fundamental principles of stage not age development that drives the success of the Foundation Phase.

The Welsh Government’s own foreword to the Foundation Phase Framework for children’s learning for 3-7 year olds states;

“The Foundation Phase curriculum is planned as a progressive framework that spans four years (3 to 7 years) to meet the diverse needs who are at an earlier stage of development and those who are more able. Throughout their formative years, children’s learning develops more rapidly than at any other time. However, progress is not even and children go through periods of rapid development and times when they seem to regress. A curriculum for young children should be appropriate to their stage of learning rather than focusing solely on age-related outcomes to be achieved. Children should move on to the next stages of their learning when they are developmentally ready at their own pace.”

This foreword, as the underpinning principle of the Foundation Phase, is what makes the policy work so effectively and is what has drawn international acclaim. The changes proposed to introduce year on year assessment and expectations would quite clearly contradict the fundamental pedagogy that makes up the Foundation Phase.

It is naive to expect all children to develop at the same rate and achieve the same things at the same times. Different children will advance in different skills at different speeds. Some struggling across the curriculum, some excelling in all disciplines and some improving at different rates across different interests.

As the Welsh Government’s Foundation Phase Foreword states above, there will be occasions where children’s development will fluctuate between rapid progression and regression. This can be a reflection of parental support; socio-economic backgrounds; available resources outside the school in the community or even basic principles such as the month of birth of a child. It would be detrimental to expect all children to hit the same targets and so unless the year on year expectations reflect the flexibility of the developmental achievement they will be simply seen as yardsticks that cannot be proper indicators of success.

The risks of year on year expectations far outweigh any potential benefits; creating expectations that are simply not going to be met will deflate morale and serve no purpose for children’s educational development.

‘School banding undermines the focus on collaboration’ – Western Mail Article

2 Dec

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Next month will see the third annual publication of school bandings in Wales. As many people will no doubt already be aware teachers have opposed the system since the outset and are increasingly worried about the impact it is having on children’s education.

Teachers have outlined two particular concerns, amongst many, about the way the bandings are put together. Firstly, the system at present judges schools on an annual basis. One consequence of this is that school performance is viewed in the context of just one cohort of pupils. This, unfortunately, gives a rather misleading picture for parents that has resulted in hugely volatile outcomes. For example, we saw the number one ranked school in Wales according to the 2011 bandings drop over 150 places in just one year. Another school was the first ever in Wales to receive outstanding ratings across the board in its Estyn inspection, yet in the same year it went from band 1 to band 3. That unpredictability cannot be informative for parents who are left to ponder competing analysis of schools from different sources.

A much more realistic picture for parents would be presented if these bandings were published on data collated over a longer period of time. Potentially every 3-5 years. While this may not be in-keeping with the 24/7 news agenda of modern life it would be a better indicator for schools and allow a fairer assessment of actual performance. It is important of course to recognise the challenges of not leaving children behind through a longer appraisal process, but it is equally harmful to the education of those pupils if their school is in a state of constant flux as a result of the existing volatility. We have to question which, in the long-term, is most appropriate for creating a world leading education system, an ambition shared by everyone involved in the sector in Wales.

A further concern is that the current approach to banding is based on a norm referencing system. This means that schools are not ranked purely on their own merits but in relation to the performance of others. Ignoring the lack of logic behind comparing a school in Bangor with one in Barry; Newtown or Newport; the Gower or Gwynedd, and the different social; geographical; economic and cultural challenges that those areas present, the fact is that this system puts schools in competition with one another and means there is no real way to show national improvements. While the scores of individual schools may rise and fall the net result will be that under this system there will always remain roughly the same amount of schools in each of the five bands. It is consigning a set number of schools to be in the bottom bands irrespective of national performance.

Last year the then Education Minister, Leighton Andrews AM, said that there had been noticeable improvements amongst band 4 and 5 schools. However, to any parent looking at the headline figures the state of play was almost identical. Yes you can track individual schools to an extent but there will always be an inbuilt bias in the system that locks a percentage of schools in the lowest bands. There is no escaping that fate for some. What is more, this system completely undermines the focus on collaboration. While the Welsh Government have policies, such as the lead and emerging practitioners programme that are focused on schools helping each other, the overarching banding system makes that ambition redundant. Under the existing referencing approach schools are apprehensive about collaboration as they know any improvement in banding scores for others could mean a decline in their own status.

What would be a more progressive system is one that sets an average for each band and that through criterion referencing schools can actually empty the bottom bands if they reach high enough performance ratings. Not only would this remove the glass ceiling for the lower bands it would also address some of the fears about collaboration. Schools, no longer explicitly in competition with one another where banding rankings are concerned, would be free to work closer together. Given that we know the best form of continued professional development is peer-to-peer support it makes perfect sense that we aim to help encourage that as much as possible. That includes taking away any potential barriers to its application.

Teachers, and parents, have lost confidence that banding can successfully improve standards. Increasingly it is seen as delivering the opposite of that objective. To give credit to the Education Minister he has stated that he will be reviewing the metrics that contribute to the banding scores. Hopefully that will also include looking at the structure of the system and any potential anomalies, such as those detailed above, that could be addressed to help create a system that has greater support amongst the profession and the wider public. The fact the Education Minister has been prepared to look at policies as an on-going practice is certainly positive.

While implementing these changes certainly would not resolve all the major problems with banding, they would be a step in the right direction to supporting parents in making more informed judgements.

You can read the origional article as published here