Archive | August, 2014

The South Beach Shack – Tenby

28 Aug

We went to Tenby for a little family holiday over the bank holiday. The plan was for one last trip as a trio before the new baby arrived. It is fair to say the weather wasn’t the best.

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Still, even in the miserable drizzle Tenby was more than picturesque.

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Fortunately we ended up having a really lovely first day as the sun eventually came out. The Gryffalo had the time of his life on what is a fantastic beach.

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The Place

Location wise you couldn’t want for a better place. There was a lovely little cluster of facilities all together. Bar grill/ice cream parlor etc

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The view from the outside decking was spectacular even on this over cast day. I imagine it is second to none on a bright afternoon.

There ends the positives of this story however. Service seemed to missing the smile (and the please and thank you in fact) and there wasn’t much else to write home about in complimentary tones.

The Cake

No carrot cake available.

The Hot Chocolate

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As you can see the setting for the drink was very special. The drink itself…not so much. The hot chocolate was tasteless. There was no strong flavors and in general a real let down.

The Rest

I had planned on a few reviews from this trip. There was a real nice looking 1940s afternoon tea venue in the center of Tenby town that I was looking forward to trying. Llew (my new son)had other plans and decided to turn up 4 weeks early and say hello, thus cutting short our holiday at 2:30am on the first night.

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So we went to Tenby as three and came back as a foursome. 

Time to give a little praise to the teaching profession

25 Aug

The last few years have been tough on those working in the education sector in Wales.  Polices have been implemented which conflict with the views of the profession, often with little regards for their expertise and input. Changes to the terms and conditions of teachers have left them continuing to work unsustainable hours but for less pay and pensions.  The narrative and language that has been used by Government’s at both end of the M4 has been highly emotive and not always conducive to supporting practitioners.  The perception of teaching has not been great.  The way teachers are reported in the media at times has fuelled this view.  All this has, unsurprisingly, lead to poor morale.  However, there is a sense that the tide is turning and we should start to demand a more hopeful view of our system.

There’s no doubt that the current Education Minister has set about renewing respect for teaching as a profession.  The fact that respect for the role of a teacher was a central theme of Huw Lewis’ first real keynote speech did not go unnoticed.  He has also backed that up with the language and thrust of his arguments about creating a new deal around professional development for teachers.  Now, that isn’t to say that this is all a silver bullet.  Let’s not forget that this ‘new deal’ has not actually been accompanied by any new money.  Talk does not necessarily equate to action.  Still, we should not underestimate the importance of the language that has been used.

We have also seen the introduction of the Schools Challenge Cymru initiative.  Now there is no denying that there has been an element of scepticism around this policy since questions were raised relating to the way in which it is to be funded.  However, it is still something that, for now at least, seems to have buy in from the sector.  A crucial element that has been missing from a number of Welsh Government policies in the past.

Perhaps the biggest shot in the arm has come from the excellent A Level results we saw recently which included the number of individuals receiving the top grades increasing and the gap closing with England. A week later there was more good news with our GCSE results  being pretty spectacular.  Not only has the attainment gap closed with the rest of the UK but Wales saw its best ever A*-C grade results.  This against a backdrop of changing specifications and the fiasco we saw around the January English exams.

The results were also a positive in terms of the next round of PISA testing which will focus on science.  While this cohort will not be going through that process the fact that there were improvements at GCSE Chemistry, Biology and Physics as well as in the percentage of individuals receiving the top grades at A Level in those subjects is something to take forward.

The focus given to the good news stories is not always comparable with the bad.  Sensationalism sells I guess.  While in other years my phone has rung off the hook on results day there were no clamours for me to do any radio phone-ins following these results days to praise teachers.

What we must do internally within the profession and publicly, is to acknowledge the positives we are seeing.  It is important to still identify the challenges and work collaboratively and constructively to address them of course, but there should be nothing stopping us all from saying well done in the meantime.

 

So yeah. That devolution thing happened you know.

22 Aug

If the last week of A-Level and GCSE results have taught us anything it is that UK network broadcasters still don’t get devolution.  The very idea of separate education systems clearly did not cross the minds of those reporting from London.

In response to last weeks A level results the @BBCBreaking account tweeted the following to its 10.9 million followers:

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The problem with this of course is that Wales had not seen a slight fall in its A* and A grades.  In fact the numbers of students receiving an A* grade in Wales was up by 0.7% while those achieving an A*-A grade result increased by 0.4%.  This blanket approach to UK results was inaccurate and presented a highly misleading picture of performance in Wales.

I did tweet the account to highlight the error, as did the BBC Wales Education Correspondent.  However, a week later when the GCSE results were published, it was evident lessons had not been learnt.  Again the @BBCBreaking account presented a UK reflection of results rather than recognising the different set of results attained by the different devolved education systems.

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On this occasion network BBC reported that Wales had achieved a 0.7% rise in pupils scoring A* to C grades in their GCSEs.  The reality was that in Wales the rise was 0.9% securing our best ever A*-C grade return.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that this was a uniqley BBC issue.  Sky News were also in on the act making the same mistake when tweeting its 1.25 million followers.

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I do want to state that BBC Wales did a very good job of covering the results from a Welsh perspective, as did ITV Wales.  I think a particular mention should go to the printed press who went into real detail in how they broke down the data and reported on a school by school and regional basis.

However the vast majority of people in Wales still get their news through a UK prism and so it is worrying that 15 years into the devolution process broadcasters still cannot appreciate the nuances of separate education structures.  Given the ever diverging nature of our education sectors will make it increasingly more difficult to make cross border comparisons it is something that really does need to be corrected.

Glasgow: A Sporting Legacy for Wales?

8 Aug

One of the big issues in our schools is how education, and educators, can play a role in tackling the obesity crisis. We know that getting children involved with sport at a young age is crucial to their long-term physical development.  If children have a healthy relationship with sporting endeavours throughout their school lives they are far more likely to remain physically active after they leave.  This investment in sport not only helps in terms of reducing obesity related illnesses but it develops the often hard to measure personal skills that most teachers are very focused on, and that are crucial for life after leaving school.  These include leadership qualities, team-work, problem solving and communication skills amongst other benefits.  None of this should start or end at the school gate of course, but the is undoubtably a real opportunity to maximize the engagement levels during the school day.

Most people in Wales have been pretty engrossed in the Commonwealth Games over the past few weeks.  Any major championship usually, in the short-term at least, acts as a catalyst to increased participation in sports.  The fact that we were actually looking at distinctly Welsh branded athletes will have helped even more in capturing the imagination.  What is more, that some of the Welsh medals came in sports you would not usually see given prime-time exposure is a real bonus.  Often where teachers have often found difficulty in engaging students it has been due to “traditional” sports not appeal to them.  These games, through the likes of Frankie Jones in Rhythmic Gymnastics, Natalie Powell in Judo and Craig Pilling in Wrestling, have exposed a generation of individuals to the idea of taking up sports they may never previously have considered.  The very fact that so many Welsh athletes, winners or not, have reached a high competitive level across the range of events is inspirational alone.

However, If we expect Glasgow to deliver a lasting legacy perhaps we need to think again.  While Geraint Thomas, Jazz Carlin, Georgia Davies et all continue to be, or will go on to be, household names, at a grassroots level we do have to face up to the future.  Austerity measures are cutting our local services.  Public leisure centres are being downgraded, privatised or shut completely.  The upkeep of playing fields are being neglected while the cost to hire for them is being increased.  Access to the sort of facilities we need to ensure remain commonplace if we are to entice the next generation of medalists to take up sports is becoming increasingly constrictive.

We can, and should, of course be more creative.  Less money doesn’t always mean there are no options.  I have previously blogged on how we can utilise our school buildings in different ways to try to create community spaces where they do not currently exist.  Still, there can be no underestimating what the cuts to provisions at a local level will mean to participation figures.

No one is suggesting that any services are completely off-limits.  Let’s be realistic, it is hard to say we do not want slashing cuts to our education and/or health services while expecting all the local authorities libraries, sport centres or parks to remain untouched.  That being said there is an invest to save argument.  What impact will reducing the ability of engaging children in sport, and the lifelong passion for health and nutrition that goes with it, have on our education and health services in the longer term?

At a school level sporting facilities have always been squeezed but that is only going to be more and more difficult.  The intensive drive towards a focus of literacy and numeracy does have an impact on other areas of education.  That isn’t to underestimate the absolute need to ensure that literacy and numeracy is a priority in our schools. They are and should be.  However, we have reached a point in Wales where they are slowly becoming the only thing that matter.  Resources for schools in general are sparse and very often, rightly or indeed wrongly, it is the creative arts that suffer.  Those subjects that are not part of the core curriculum are marginalised.  Drama, music and sport are the casualties of the PISA approach to education.

We can also look at the issue of workload for teachers.  The ever-increasing pressures placed on practitioners make it more and more difficult for them to give up what free time they already have.  Given a large proportion of those running after school sports clubs are teachers this does cause a lot of problems in ensuring such community activities can continue to be offered.

Sport Wales have two clear and ambitious objectives.

1. To create a Nation of Champions

2. To ensure that every child is hooked on sport for life.

It is fair to say that in respect of the first objective the organisation is well on its way to establishing Wales as relative powerhouse.  Per head of population Wales was the best performing nation in the UK competing at the Commonwealth games and its sporting performance in general terms far outweighs the expectations a nation of just 3 million individuals could expect.  However, Sport Wales cannot expect to achieve the second ambition unless we all recognise the barriers that are being placed in front of development at a grassroots level.

Maesmawr Hall Hotel

6 Aug
The place
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It was my 4th wedding anniversary recently so while me and my good wife were travelling to North Wales for the wedding of some of our best friends I arranged to stop at the Maesmawr Hall Hotel for a spot of afternoon tea.

 

The drive in was home to a stunning entrance through a row of trees. The building itself was beautiful and secluded and made for a fantastic setting. The added bonus of having a quiet and sunny day made this a lovely place to stop.

2The staff was very attentive and were a real credit to the venue.

The Carrot Cake

Unfortunately there was no carrot cake on offer as part of the afternoon tea.

The Hot Chocolate

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The hot chocolate came out delayed from the rest of the afternoon tea which was a slight shame. There was no cream as such but rather a was more frothy finish. The drink itself was very sweet. For some, perhaps most, people this may have been too sweet but to my pallet it was enjoyable.

The Rest

As it was afternoon tea we had a selection of other items.

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The sandwiches were not the pretentious slices you can get with many afternoon teas. Instead we were treated to chunky and toasted bread. The fillings were very satisfying.

In one sandwich there was thick sliced beef, medium rare, with prominent horseradish flavour. The other contained thick ham with an abundance of cheese. No stinging on the content here.

The chunky sandwiches meant the rest of the afternoon tea was eaten for flavour and not out of hunger

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The chocolate truffle was sadly a little too soft. There was a nice chocolate flavour but the texture was more akin to a mousse than a truffle and didn’t quite work.
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The Bara Brith was excellent. It was moist with a punchy flavour. This was the surprise star of the offering and was worth the trip on its own.
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The scone baked when ordered so very fresh. It came accompanied by quaint little pots of jam and cream.  My wife often complains there’s not enough cream and jam but there was a plentiful supply here. I found the scone slightly over if I’m honest but my good wife found the crunch excellent.
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The bakewell tart had a strong marzipan flavour. Again, as with the Bara Brith, the cake was moist.  There was a good level of icing and good jam. A winner.

 

Overall this was a recommended little break on the drive from South to North Wales.

Western Mail Article – Lessons from the Isle of Man

4 Aug

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Whenever there’s debate about the best education systems in the world the focus has inevitably turned towards Finland. It has become an almost mythical land for teachers in Wales looking with envy at its light touch accountability approach; teacher respect; rational workloads; high attainment and equity.

Of course, while this is the gold standard we should aspire towards, education policies do not always travel well and it is not as simple as saying what works in one part of the world will necessarily work in another. We have to respect the different cultures and societies that exist. If we are talking about the child centred and creativity focused approach of Finland, or the more prescribed system in South East Asia with their punishingly long hours, neither culture can easily be comparable to Wales.

There is however an example closer to home of a system that is operating differently and getting positive results. Around 50 miles from the Welsh coast is the Isle of Man. It has strategic links with the UK but a fully independent education system. There is an educational value that, as I discovered on a recent fact finding trip, is central to its philosophy and is a great source of pride to teachers.  With just 37 schools it is perhaps difficult to make any sweeping assessments.  However, the nature of those schools, ranging from rural to city with differing levels of diversity and ethnicity, it can act as a microcosm for the Welsh system.  With a population of 84,000 it would sit in the middle of Ceredigion and Torfaen in the list of population density amongst Welsh local authorities.

Like Finland there are no league tables or school banding for schools on the Isle of Man; there are no standardised tests like we have in Wales and most important to the success of their system is that there is no inspectorate. No Estyn. No Ofsted.

The dead hand of accountability has not weighed down on the shoulders of the teaching profession and as a result they have fostered a collaborative approach to education that we strive for in Wales but have increasingly struggled to achieve.

Make no mistake.  That the Isle of Man does not have an inspectorate does not equate to a lack of scrutiny, but rather that accountability is driven by internal responsibility in a way that isn’t allowed to flourish in Wales to the same extent.  Without the external pressures on schools that are created through intrusive and often unreflective Estyn inspections, progress has developed in a more long-term and sustainable way.  Schools have been able to take a wider view.  Instead of the data driven approach we often see across Wales, and indeed other areas of the UK, there is a more child centred focus.  Data is undeniably important, no one disputes that, but it is used in the context of supporting child development rather than being used to undermine schools or to measure arbitrary targets.  Theirs is an accountability approach that is based on rigour and respect rather than on that is purely judgemental and pressurised.  That is an essential balance that has allowed a more honest and collaborative partnership to be found between central government and the wider sector.

That no league tables, or banding, exist on the island has also helped encourage a collaborative approach between schools and clusters.  Of course certain policies do aim to develop that in Wales.  Both the lead-emerging schools programme and the School Challenge Cymru approach are designed around the view of supporting the sharing of best practice.  However, it is often difficult to see how they can be truly effective when schools remain in constant competition with one another through banding.  We can but hope the development of a more supportive categorisation model will eventually help address this issue.

While Wales has reintroduced standardised testing for pupils, including for very young children, the Isle of Man has resisted this approach.  Even the famed Welsh Foundation Phase is now to be assessed against the Literacy and Numeracy Framework, diluting the real commitment to the stage not age approach to learning through play.  In contrast to this high stakes regime, the lack of testing for Isle of Man students has encouraged pupils not to fear failure but to embrace it and learn from mistakes.  It has also ensured that there has not been a narrowing of the curriculum.

What was striking was the freedom afforded to schools to develop their own sense of culture.  Each school of course has a core curriculum but they are allowed to shape it in a way that reflects the needs and values of their own communities.  While Wales has drifted to a situation whereby we expect each and every school to look and operate like the next the Isle of Man has celebrated its differences.  We are of course undergoing a curriculum review and the opportunity is there for change to be delivered that empower schools to similar ends.

Not everything in the Isle of Man system is perfect.  You certainly wouldn’t find practitioners there claiming it is.  Indeed there are areas of our own policy and practice that could and would help drive improvements.  However there is no doubt that on some of the very big questions they have found answers that have united support across the sector and taken the burden off teachers.