Archive | January, 2015

Elizabeth is Missing – Emma Healey

26 Jan

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This debut novel by Emma Healey is a thoroughly good read. Told through the narration of Maude it recounts the duel stories of her quest to uncover what has happened to her friend Elizabeth, who is missing, and her sister Sukey, who also went missing some seventy years earlier. Both are intertwined as the book becomes part crime novel and part an exploration of family and mental health.

At times the decent into dementia was difficult to read. The combination of frustration for those around Maude, desperate sympathy for her and a sense of worry that this is a possible future for me and my elderly relatives was not always pleasant. It reminded me a lot at times of Nathan Filer’s ‘Shock of the Fall.’ Given that was my book of the year for 2014 that isn’t a bad thing.

This is the first book of 2015 that has stood out as one that I will still consider in a few months or years time. Highly recommended.

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The Uncommon Reader – Alan Bennett

16 Jan

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I found this a charming and very pleasant read.  The premise is that the Queen, late in life, becomes an avid reader and in doing so reevaluates much of what she thought and how she thought it.

I’ve always been a reader but in recent years I’ve read far more than in earlier life and I’ve certainly found an impact beyond just the pages I’ve passed over and so identified with the narrative here.

There is a lot of dry humor in this book with the portrayal of the Queen and her friendship with able assistant Norman particularly enjoyable.  It is only 120 odd pages so it didn’t take me much more than an afternoon.  If you have a long train journey or flight it is an ideal companion.

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

15 Jan

photoEvery year I seem to discover a new crime/thriller writer that I explore for the year.  Last year it was Elmore Leonard whose books ‘Get Short,’ ’52 pick up’ and ‘Raylan’ made their way into my reading list.  The previous year it was John Le Carre I stumbled across as I read ‘Call for the dead,’ ‘The Spy who came in from the cold,’ ‘A murder of quality,’ ‘The looking glass war’ and ‘A small town in Germany.’  This year it could very well be Raymond Chandler that takes my crime writer spot.

The Big Sleep is the first novel featuring Chandler’s notorious private detective, Philip Marlowe.

I thouroughly enjoyed this book, even if it did seem a little drawn out at times.  For some reason at times I found it a little hard going, which is odd as it is a fast paced plot and always entertaining.  The writing is very good with some very quotable turns of phrases.  A few of my favourites included:

“I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintace. I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter nights.”

“It seemed like a nice neighborhood to have bad habits in.”

“You’re broke, eh?”
I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

As well as the Big Sleep I also have ‘Farewell, My Love’ and ‘The Long Good-Bye’ by Chandler that I’ll work through over the year.  Hopefully they live up to this first offering.

 

The LNF

14 Jan

Estyn’s report into the literacy levels of Welsh schools made for interesting reading yesterday, particularly as it publicly criticised the Welsh Government for the implementation of its Literacy and Numeracy Framework.

The general view of the report was that the pace of change of this initiative was too quick; the lead in time to it was not long enough; the profession were not adequately supported to deliver it and the right level of training needed was not made available.

These criticisms are of course not new. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) were commissioned by the Welsh Government to undertake a thorough review of the education system here. Their findings were in-line with Estyn, and indeed teachers working on the front-line, who have consistently detailed the problems with implementation of new policies and projects.

It takes time for fundamental changes to education services to deliver noticeable results. The best systems in the world embarked on reforms that had continuity and consistency across a ten, fifteen or even a twenty year plus timeframe. Expecting things to change one way or the other in just a few years is neither realistic nor helpful. For too long we have seen decisions about the future of our education system based on political rather than educational timescales. I can fully understand why any politician or Government would do this. The public expect quick results and there are always elections on the horizon and headlines to be written. It would take a lot of courage for any Education Minister to accept that they were in it for the very long haul, and with that take the short-term criticism knowing the likelihood was that it would be their successors that reaped the rewards. That doesn’t change the fact that this is what is ultimately needed.

That said, when changes when are put in place they must be done properly. There is little doubt that we have not seen that in Wales. There was too much churn, too soon and with too little support. Teachers were inundated with new initiatives but those changes were not adequately supported or funded. That has left us still having to play catch up, and arguably from a more difficult position.  It has been particularly noticeable that certain local authorities have abdicated their responsibilities when it comes to continued professional development.  Some have passed that buck to the regional consortia who have shown little appetite to take it on, instead fully focussing simply on monitoring and challenge.

This report, like others before it, should be a warning shot to policy makers, both in terms of how they develop and implements future proposals, as well as in regards to re-examining the delivery of the literacy and numeracy framework already in existence. Getting it right at the start will always save us having to revisit it after a few years.

Breaking the Chain – Willy Voet

9 Jan

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As well as an end of year list I thought this year I would put up a few sporadic book reviews. This wont be all the books I read just those that I think are worth commenting on, positively or negatively.

Breaking The Chain – Willy Voet

I’m not usually one for reading non-fiction books. After spending large parts of my working day reading committee reports; reviews; consultation documents and so forth I feel I more than hit my quota of factual/real-life reading. I want an author to create a world away from my own, allowing me to tune out of the day-to-day grind for a brief period. Still, I gave this book a go as it was recommended to me by a friend and given it is just 127 pages I thought what’s the worst that can happen?

I have to say I did actually enjoy this read.  It is an interesting and eye-opening insight into the murky world of drugs in sport.  Perhaps I enjoyed it as some of the content is so absurd that it is almost stranger than fiction.

I do have a lot of sympathy for cycling as a sport.  I grew up as a young teenager watching the highlights of the Tour de France on late night channel 4.  I have a few childhood heroes but Bjarne Riis is certainly up there with the best.  He himself is now a discredited drugs cheat of course.

Cycling is very often seen as the dirtiest sport because of the numerous high-profile examples of cheating it has exposed.  In Lance Armstrong it has the dubious honour of perhaps the most notorious drugs cheat of all time.  Who would have thought that crown would ever be taken from Ben Johnson?

The truth is of course that drugs are prevalent in all sports, it is just perhaps that cycling has done more to expose its own problems than many others.  Do we honestly believe that no high-profile football or rugby players are using illegal performance enhancing supplements?

In regards to the book itself the protagonist, former sports physiotherapist Willy Voet, jumps from recounting the various involvements he and others had in cheating the system over the years with a more lineal timeline of his period of incarceration after being caught crossing the border carrying drug supplies for the Festina race team.  Despite the fact that he’s central to a drug cheat scandal and very guilty it’s hard not to have some sympathy for Willy Voet. His accounts of prison seem shockingly lonely.  It is a little dated in so far as the Festina Affair that Willy Voet is caught up in is old news when it comes to drugs in cycling.  There are no doubt far more current books on the subject.  Still it remains shocking to hear of the extent and methods that cyclists went to in order to compete during Voet’s time in the sport.

I doubt the book would appeal to the majority of people but if you have an interest in cycling, sport or the role of drugs in sport then it is more than worth a read.

10,000 x 3

8 Jan

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If you fancy donating to a good cause I will be raising money for Ty Hafan by completing a 10,000m SkiErg followed by a 10,000m run followed by a 10,000m row on January 24th along with other people at The BoatShed TC in Cardiff.  Click on the below link should you be so kind to sponsor us.

https://www.justgiving.com/The-Boat-Shed-Training-Centre

As an added incentive my good friends at Heavy Rep Gear Clothing have generously said that everyone who pledges £10 or more will go into a draw with someone randomly pulled out for a free HRG T-shirt.  As an owner of 99% of their stock I can recommend the brand!

Individually I would guess that I could do it sub 2:30 hours. My PBs would be 10k SkiErg 48:00; 10k run 44:40 and 10k row 39:14.  One after the other mind I would be ecstatic with anything around 2:45 but no less pleased simply to break a sub 3 hour.  With that in mind please give generously!

EDIT:

I forgot to edit this with an update on how I did.  I completed the whole thing in 2:13:42. Pretty pleased with that.  I can’t even imagine attempting it again though.

5 Hopes for Welsh Education in 2015

7 Jan

“Strive for continuous improvement, instead of perfection” – Kim Collins

1. Schools Challenge Cymru:

This flagship initiative has all the potential to radically improve the life chances of children in Wales.  Modelled on the London Challenge approach there is a blue-print for success already established.  While education policy doesn’t always travel well, and we have to be weary that schools in Wales will have different issues than those in London, there is no reason why we can’t be optimistic.

The profession, which has become largely cynical about Welsh Government initiatives after countless previous disasters at the implementation stage, do appear at present to be giving this project the benefit of the doubt.  There is a lot of good will in place to support it, brought about at least in part thanks to excellent communicators like Professor Mel Ainscow acting as the face of the initiative.

However, make no mistake, this can’t be seen as a quick fix and if we are to harness that good will it has to prove effective with tangible positive impacts.  The fact that no one is still any the wiser as to where the mystery £7.9m of the £20m promised for Schools Challenge Cymru is coming from, and perhaps more importantly what other areas of education funding will miss out to pay for it, does not fill many with confidence.  It is also concerning that at present there is no commitment beyond two years.  A stark contrast to the longevity of the London approach.

Still, if there is the uplift that has been projected then hopefully that will make the case to show the nerve to roll this out for a whole generation of pupils.

2.  Support for supply teachers:

Just before the Christmas break the Children, Young People and Education Committee launched an inquiry into the supply sector in Wales.  Ignoring the utter stupidity of having just a few weeks for consultation responses which spanned the festive period, this inquiry is absolutely crucial.

Supply teachers already undertake a hugely important role in the education sector.  A role that is often overlooked; marginalised and belittled but a role that in many ways is possibly the most difficult in the profession.  With a greater emphasis on teachers sharing best practice between, and within, schools we have to accept there will be more of a reliance on supply to cover the classroom leave of sector and subject leading professionals to undertake that self-improving continued professional development.

With that in mind, we have to address the ongoing, and increasing, problems in the supply sector.  Previous Welsh Government Ministers have largely washed their hands of the responsibility, as have local authorities.  The current Minister, to his credit, has accepted the need to examine this issue but we seem no nearer action.  All the while supply teachers continue to be underpaid for their work; are subjected to reduced and restrictive terms and conditions, are operating with low morale and motivation and crucially find access to continued professional development minimal at best.  These are a vitally important section of our profession, who play a hugely important role in supporting standards in school, yet are treated like a second class workforce by agencies who are increasingly operating unchecked and unchallenged.

The inquiry, I have no doubt even with the foolish time-frame, will receive a lot of responses exposing the difficulties that exists with the system and the impact they are having on education in Wales.  The responses NUT Cymru have had during its supply campaign in 2014 show just how much of a hot topic this is.  The big hope is that this will not be one of those processes that sees a report filed away and forgotten about, but instead brings about some real change from the Welsh and local governments.

3.  Funding:

Let’s be realistic and fair to the Welsh Government.  The block grant funding it receives from Westminster has been slashed.  What they have been presented with is a very, very dark set of figures.  Easily the most depressing since devolution.

Now, let’s be realistic and fair to teachers, pupils, parents and the public.  Lazily repeating stock answers in the press saying, “we’ve been completely transparent about the very challenging financial position that we’re facing,” when in reality that isn’t the case; or saying everything is rosy in the education funding system when it isn’t, won’t wash.

We can’t keep seeing things like a £20m Schools Challenge Cymru announcement only to find out that £7.9m of that is not new money.  Worse still, to still be waiting many months later to find out where that funding will come from is frankly not a reasonable approach.  These funding decisions need to be determined well before the press releases are drafted and published.  Expecting schools to create three-year draft budget projections only to then rip them up for in-year cuts is bordering on reckless.

What funding goes into the school sector is ultimately a matter for the Welsh Government.  They determine their budgets according to what they believe are the priorities for their policies.  This of course has to be viewed against the backdrop of the cuts they themselves have faced.  However, let’s not forget that Welsh pupils were underfunded in comparison to their English counterparts even when the sun was shining (relatively) financially.

The funding hope for 2015 is that the enormous pressures on schools, which will almost certainly impact on standards, are recognised and money is put back into the system; either from other Welsh Government budgets, by using future potential Barnett consequentials or by reducing waste currently spent on areas like consortia.  At the very least we need a more honest public conversation about where we are at and how it will impact on performance.

4.  The New Deal:

The teaching profession has been crying out for greater access to continued professional development in Wales.  Access to training due to financial constraints and workloads have been increasingly dwindling.  In recent years we have seen an almost unprecedented level of new initiatives, policies and projects imposed on schools.  Ironically all since the bold statement from the previous Minister that he would be implimenting “fewer initiatives and keeping it simple.”

The reality is that they have not been even remotely matched by CPD.  The profession have been asked to do more and to do things differently but they have not been given the support to do that right.  Indeed, the Welsh Government actually reduced the ability of schools to train staff on the implementation of these new policies and systems by cutting the number of in-service training day.  Where the Welsh Government did provide training it was, to be extremely generous, variable.

Huw Lewis AM does deserve credit.  He has put CPD at the heart of his legacy as Education Minister.  In his first key-note speech he openly recognised the Welsh Government have got this wrong in the past and accepted the importance of getting it right in the future.  These are words not actions of course but these words were symbolically important.  This was a Minister, perhaps realistically the first and only Education Minister since devolution took place, to have an open public discussion about enhancing the CPD opportunities for teachers.

What developed from that speech was the ‘New Deal’ concept.  It is right that the pessimist in me highlights two key points.  Firstly, there is no new money here.  We’ve already touched on the funding problems.  The truth is this is a new deal but there is no new investment.  If schools have failed to fund CPD in the past it is a little hard to see it happening at a time of even greater budget constraints.  Secondly, the crux of the new deal appears to be the commitment that teachers get an entitlement to CPD throughout their careers.  The fact is that this should already be the case.  Indeed, the GTCW made the below recomendation to the Welsh Government as far back as 2002 in their ‘Continued Professional Development, An entitlement for All’ document;

“The Council considers that all teachers should be entitled to high quality and well-planned CPD provision throughout their career.”

All this cynicism being said, I do believe there is a general will on behalf of the Minister to make this work.  His statements also arm teachers with the knowledge of entitlement to demand professional development from school leaders and governing bodies.  This is a good thing.  The only challenge, albeit a significant one, is how schools and leaders are supported to meet that entitlement.  With no new money it is hard to see an easy solution.  I am hopeful at least that working together all stakeholders do have a commitment to trying to find a way forward that hasn’t been there in the past.

5. Education isn’t 2015’s NHS.

I wrote a while back that the way the NHS was being discussed in political terms was all about the heart while politicians, in Wales at least, appeared to be giving considered thought to their views on education.  Our sector, for now at least, appeared to still be a thinking man (or woman’s) domain.  It’s massively important that this remains the case.

No one person has the magic bullet to solve all education’s problems.  In Wales or elsewhere.  The continuity of approach and united tact that different politicians have shown in somewhere like Finland is a prime example of how success is built across political divides.  All political parties, and none, have a lot to offer.  Constructive approaches, in agreement or disagreement, are going to be crucial to the education debate.  What we really don’t need is that just when results suggest a bit of positivity in the Welsh education system, it is used as a political point scorer for parties and politicians both sides of the England-Wales border.  As someone with election fatigue after just a few days of 2015 I’m not sure on a personal level I could take 4 months of irresponsible and irrational political hyperbole on our system.

6 Hopes for Welsh Education – Revisited

6 Jan

At the start of 2014 I wrote a blog outlining 6 hopes for Welsh education for the year. Before I publish a similar piece for 2015 I thought I’d look back and see what, if any progress, was made last year.

1. Banding Review:

Last year I was praying that the proposed review into the failed school banding system would lead to some fundamental changes.  I am pleased to say that it did.  Huw Lewis AM took the brave but correct decision to scrap the much maligned system imposed on Welsh schools by his predecessor.

While many would have liked to have seen no replacement we have instead seen the introduction of the categorization model.  This in itself is far from ideal but there are some noticeable advantages in comparison to banding.  The key change is that the system does not pit school against school.  Now, in theory, we may have all schools in the highest performance category as they are judged on their own merits rather than simply compared to other schools with no real rational behind them.  (Of course we could also have all the schools in the lowest section).  The data is also collected across a wider timescale rather than an annual snapshot that informed the banding tables.

The jury is still out on categorization.  banding has left a bad taste in the mouth for most teachers and parents.  We will have to see how it’s successor works in practice.  However, there is little doubt the debate has moved beyond the significant failings of the flawed banding process which will only help create the platform for a more rational discussion about accountability and performance.

2.  Stop testing children who are not ready:

Sadly we have not only failed to make progress in this filed but have seemingly gone even further down the rabbit hole.  The feedback of the profession regarding the standardised literacy and numeracy tests has, if possible, become even more negative. It is also an issue that parents appear very unhappy about.  The tests continue to cause huge problems for schools and particularly for those very young children.

What we are seeing now is the introduction of expectations being set at the Foundation Phase, putting greater strain on those very youngest children and threatening that very philosophy of learning.

All in all it is quite a depressing change that we have seen over the past year.

3. Consortia Start Working:

Hmmm?

4. Professional Development Is Taken Seriously:

Actions always speak louder than words and with that in mind it is important to note that very few, if any teachers, will say that the Minister’s commitment to tackling the lack of CPD amongst the teaching profession has resulted in tangible improvements.  The system continues to fail our educators and with huge budget cuts coming to all schools in Wales the likelihood of proper professional development being delivered seems as remote as ever.

That being said the debate itself changed last year and while they may still just be words at present the fact we now have an Education Minister openly recognising this is a problem the Welsh Government have failed to address in the past, and one which needs to be addressed now, is a big shift in emphasis.  2015 must be the year that the platitudes paid to the importance of professional development move to noticeable changes to the system and investment.  We can’t seriously expect greater results without greater support.  Still, 2014 certainly did begin the work that could lead to that positive change.

5. Time To Tackle Supply:

It has to be said that little was done on this issue in 2014.  The much maligned supply sector continued to be overlooked and underappreciated by local and national governments.  However, the Children’s Committee did launch a review of the system at the very end of the year.  We can but hope this kick starts some genuine debate about this elephant in the classroom which will lead to an overhaul of the existing supply approach.

6. Pause For Thought:

One of the big things the profession wanted is a bit of patience.  Time to let the huge changes settle in to the system and to review them without ripping up the playbook.  We continued to see some policy announcements, including a few that appeared to be very much reactionary rather than deliberately thought through.  However, overall the pace of change slowed and there seemed a bit more of an acceptance that we cannot deliver major changes overnight.  Perhaps the OECD warnings on this were finally being headed.  Either way, there was a bit more break and a bit less accelerator and it offers a far better opportunity to stay on the road (to stretch the analogy).