Christmas in a castle

christmas castle

Going to spend Christmas in this bona fide 13th century castle in west Wales this Christmas, which will be exciting. First Xmas I’ve ever spent in a castle come to think of it!  Hoping it will be a white one which will be really romantic…

roch castle, pembrokeshire

There are six bedrooms, all en suite, and a chef to cook Xmas dinner. Will be the most luxurious Xmas I have ever had. And it’s in Pembrokeshire where I grew up. Already planning a walk on the beach in Newgale to work up an appetite before lunch with Moby the dog!
moby, dog, spaniel

If anyone wants details of how to book Roch castle do let me know (they do weddings and corporate stays and stuff).

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Tackling troubled families and Louise Casey

I interviewed Louise Casey, the tough-talking head of the government’s troubled families programme, last week for The Sunday Times.
Five minutes into our interview and Casey lost control. After telling me about her meeting with Stella, a 40-year-old mother from one of Britain’s most troubled families Casey had to stop, choked with emotion.  Stella’s son was first brought home by the police when he was 11; Stella’s grandchildren have been taken away from her daughter; Stella herself was abused as a child.
Casey, who has been charged with mending broken Britain by turning around 120,000 problem families by 2015, apologised to me for her outbreak of emotion.
 “How amazing,” she said. “I don’t think I have ever done that before, but some of these families really get under your skin because you know they are carrying such adversity on their shoulders.”
So, how do you break the cycle of misery that is passed through the generations in these problem families? According to Casey it could be as simple as assigning a team of social workers to each family to literally live on their sofas for a few months and teach mums how to do basic things like get out of bed in the morning to get the kids off to school or how to cook an evening meal.
The government will pay local councils £4,000 a family if they reduce truancy and crime or put parents back to work.
Families that don’t co-operate will lose their benefits and/or their council house and their children may be taken into care.
“As touching as I have found talking to some of these families, I am absolutely sure I would not have wanted to live next door to Sarah’s family two or three years ago,” Casey admitted.
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Sussing out cyberschools

I wrote a story for yesterday’s Sunday Times, with the paper’s education correspondent Jack Grimston, which at first sight may not seem that important. It’s a story about what could become the UK’s first virtual school, in which children study from home, have most lessons online and pop into school only for the occasional appointment with a tutor or to meet other youngsters.
The plans for the school – which would be based in Staffordshire – have been submitted by an American company to Michael Gove, the education secretary. If it gets the green light it could be open by 2014.
A source said: “It could help school refuseniks or children who are being bullied. The school would offer online lessons, and children might go into school some days for one-to-one tuition.”
The school is proposed as the first in a chain of virtual ones, some of which might be used by home-schooled children. More than 80,000 children in Britain are educated at home, some for religious or ideological reasons.
The reason it’s so interesting is because a virtual school would require far fewer teachers than a conventional one. One teacher could teach 100 pupils using online lessons, instead of 30, the norm in British state schools. The American company’s proposal could be a pointer to the future as the use of technology grows and the government comes under greater pressure to cut costs. In America, schools like the Rocketship school in California are far further down the technology road than their British counterparts.
The virtual school proposal is among a tranche of applications to set up free schools that is being considered by the government. Although it did not make the list of the 102 new free schools announced by David Cameron last Friday, the US company’s application was a “close miss” this time around, according to a source close to the government. The source said it stood a “very, very good chance” of being approved next year.
Given the implications for teachers, it’s hardly surprising the teaching unions are opposed.
Last week Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said. “In principle there is nothing wrong with online learning and supporting through one-to-one tuition,” she said, “but not when that is the main source of formal learning for a pupil.
I can’t make up my mind whether virtual schools are a good idea or a bad one. I love the Open University and the way more and more universities are making their lectures available online for anyone to download. But surely children need people around them to learn effectively, instructing and supporting them – ideally one to one.
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Teaching children to read? Phonics has all the aces

Unusual for me to agree with a government minister, but I have to say, on this one Mr Gibb has all the aces.

If you want to teach a child to read, the phonics method (teach them the sounds associated with the letters of the alphabet, then ask them to sound out words) is the common sense method. And it works.
The idea a child will somehow learn to read by hearing enough books read aloud or guessing at words from the context and the pictures is just bizarre.
Sure it sounds smug, but I taught my kids to read – and while I didn’t know it was called the phonics method – it’s how we did it. It’s the way I was taught to read, too. Sometimes the old-fashioned ways are just the best.
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The Leon boys beat a path to perfect school dinners

I interviewed the Leon boys about their campaign for better school dinners for the Sunday Times. You can read the full interview, with details of their mission and their relationship with Michael Gove, Jamie Oliver, here . Meanwhile, here’s my take on the lunch:

We are sitting in a downstairs den in a branch of the restaurant chain Leon in central London. Dozens of cookery books are stacked up on shelves along the walls. I glimpse Playboy Gourmet and Nigellissima, nestling among cookbooks from France and Spain and Thailand. Many of the well-thumbed tomes were donated by friends of Leon’s co-founders, Henry Dimbleby, John Vincent and chef Allegra McEvedy.

Dimbleby, son of broadcaster David and cookery writer Jocelyn, is sitting at a table tucking into  a Leon fishfinger wrap, “probably one of our naughtiest wraps, with fresh tartare sauce,” says Vincent.

“Yum, yum, mmmm,” says Dimbleby, laughing.

I interviewed the pair for The Sunday Times last week (see link below) . Last week celebrity chef wars broke out when education secretary Michael Gove announced that Dimbleby and Vincent had been appointed to  review school dinners and come up with ways of improving them by 2013.

Speaking at Lauriston primary in London, which has a kitchen garden and cookery club as well as ambitious plans to put a beehive on the roof, Mr Gove said: “There has been an improvement, with many schools transforming dinners, introducing food-growing into the curriculum and teaching cookery. But there is still more to do.”

The appointment of Dimbleby and Vincent was seen by many as a slap in the face for Jamie Oliver and an attempt to silence the TV chef’s long running criticisms of school food. It’s seven years since Oliver’s TV programme School Dinners exposed just how revolting school dinners were.  Children were regularly eating junk foods like the infamous Turkey Twizzlers, with the average spent on a school lunch just 37 p per child. A generation was being led towards obesity and diabetes, warned Oliver.

Last week the TV chef condemned the commissioning of yet another “costly report”. This just delays action for another year or more,” said Oliver.

“I’m fairly confident that the gentlemen from Leon will end up pushing for the same things that I, and many others, have been pushing for years but the question is:  will Mr Gove listen? Will he finally do anything about the problems in school food?”

So what do Dimbleby and Vincent make of Oliver’s reaction and why have they ventured into territory he first claimed as his own. Is it war at dawn with rolling pins?

“We had two meetings with Jamie when we were deciding whether to take this on,” reveals Dimbleby. “He said ‘I have met six secretaries of state for education. I am frustrated at the lack of action’. But he was supportive of us getting involved. He told us he thought we would do a really good job.”

To be honest, adds Dimbleby. “I am not upset or surprised at people’s reaction . . . If I had worked incredibly hard on something and heard that two people I had never heard of were coming in to do it I would be quite sceptical.”

The way they see it, however, while everyone agrees that school food, with its high fat and sugar content, is poisoning a generation of children, there is still no concrete plan to raise standards nationwide.

Despite millions being spent on improving school cuisine since Jamie’s Channel 4 campaign began, fewer than half of pupils currently eat school dinners and only one in five schools gives children at least one helping of vegetables a day. Pizza and fried food are still the norm in many canteens.

“If there was a blueprint for change, there would be no reason for us to get involved,” says Dimbleby. “But people said to us, there are lots of good things happening, but no consensus for what needs to be done.”

With their backgrounds in management consultancy – they met at  Bains, one of the top management consultants, as well as their experience setting up Leon, a chain of 13 restaurants that offer healthy dishes like baked fries and chicken and chorizo wraps, but packaged with all the allure and fun of fast food, they says they are the people to come up with a plan of action.

“One always has the impression in the private sector that in the public sector it operates like a Stalin or Nazi state, that one day someone passes a law and the next day all the cooks and teachers will do something,” says Vincent.

“But that isn’t the way it works. Everyone in the country isn’t going to have lamb stew on a Monday like they do in France.  The trick is to give cooks and teachers the inspiration to own change…while giving them processes to support them. We know how to do that, we have done it.”

Their plan will be published in 2013 and until then they will both spend two days a week on their new  task. They are being paid expenses – about £30,000 for  a member of staff to cover the time they are spending away from their business.

Already  they have stories to tell about some of the dozen or so schools they visited while deciding whether to accept the role of government advisers.

“There was one school I went to in Hackney, London,” says Dimbleby.

“One woman working there was amazing. She had been at the school 22 years. At the beginning the Inner London Education Authority was responsible for supplying school meals all over London. They would receive whole sides of beef and butcher them in the kitchens. Then in the 1980s the service was given to local councils. Hackney council worked out it could make money from franchising the catering to fast food outfits. [Under the new regime], the kids would be given sausages and burgers, and they would be deep fried. She told us that there used to be fights in the dining hall, which she thought was a lot to do with food. They had to have two security guards in there. One day she went to the head and said ‘You’re killing these children’. Fortunately, the head said to her ‘OK, why don’t you run it?’. So she did and gradually she started to change the children’s food habits. Now she says kids come in to the school from primary schools saying ‘Where are my fruit and veg?’. She was brilliant she ruled that dining room.”

After Oliver’s first TV programme in 2005, tough new minimum nutritional standards were introduced by the last government. Despite this,  horrified at what they were seeing on their TV screens, many parents switched their children to packed lunches. As a result only around 40 per cent of children currently eat cooked school dinners in primary and secondary school. The pair see their job as persuading more children to take up school dinners and persuading  schools where food is still below par to do better.

“If you look at the underperforming schools no one wants to serve children bad food. Noone wants to let kids to be at school not understanding how to feed themselves how to keep themselves well. The question is what are the barriers stopping those schools, how can they be removed,” says Vincent.

“Some of the magic ingredients for success we have seen so far include having a school chef who is a personality who takes up the cause of healthy meals, and a  head prepared to implement a business manager’s vision,” says Dimbleby.

“There are lots of little ideas we want to implement, too. A teacher pays £2.70 for their school lunch  if they eat with other staff, only £1.80 if they sit with the kids. That helps a child eat communally. That practice could be adopted in many schools.”

Dimbleby is also keen on setting up a national website so that every child could blog about their school lunch – like Martha Payne, the Scottish schoolgirl whose postings on her school dinners have named and shamed the authorities.

“I would like to set up a website where every school in the country was encouraged to post pictures of their food. So that parents could click on the pictures and see what their kids were eating. Keen to get everyone in the country posting pictures of school food,” he says.

The pair even have fish and chip Fridays in their sights. “It seems to be a country wide phenomenon,” says Henry. “We went to one school and asked a girl there, what would you change? She said Every Friday for three years Fish and Chips. That’s what I’d change.”

With young children of their own, theirs is a personal as well as a commercial crusade.

Dimbleby’s son George, four, the oldest of three, will in September start at Gayhurst primary in Hackney.

“George is a classic young boy,” laughs his dad. “If you gave him cake he would eat cake all day long. While they are trying, I think the school dinners could be better. Spaghetti Bolognese, chilli con carne, that’s the kind of meal that’s served.”

Nonetheless, at his state nursery George does eat school meals. “He likes his dinners because he likes the cook. From the schools we have seen so far that are doing well  – the cook was out there, quite a character, selling the food.”

Nor are things much better at Cumnor House, the private school Vincent’s daughters, Natasha, 12 and Eleanor, six attend. “At my kids school, bless them, they get given a doughnut in the afternoon for energy”, wails Vincent. (Leon is named after his father, who has suffered from poor health).

But, he adds, Martin, the chef, is good at telling his daughters to cut down on their wheat intake. “I have trained my kids – probably made them too paranoid – to understand what is healthy or not. The chef does say ‘Oh Natasha you don’t want so much wheat, do you? I am sure there are lots of freaky deaky middle class parents saying ‘Oh my kids don’t eat wheat and I am one of them. Wheat has been so modified – it’s a big cause of why people are becoming wheat intolerant.

“Working with nutritionists at Leon made me understand how vital food is to how you feel every day as well as your long term health,” he goes on.

“I am seriously angry – ask my kids –for instance, there are some sweets called Percy Pigs which are sold at M and S. The packet says they are made from fruit juice. But they are mostly made from sucrose and gelatine and sugar, not fruit juice. I see kids all the times having their bodies screwed up either from ignorance or exploitation.”

Ask whether parents are partly to blame for pupils’ reluctance to eat healthily and the pair cough and laugh with embarrassment. In the wake of Oliver’s Channel 4 protamme one mother in Rotherham was caught trying to stuff burgers through the school railings to her child because she said the new healthy school dinners were leaving her youngster hungry.

The trick they think is to thread food through the curriculum, so that schools offer cookery classes and gardening clubs and involve parents in helping look after the gardens in the holidays so that they get a sense of how vegetables are grown and can be used in meals.

In a cook book to be published this autumn the pair will reveal some of their own tips for getting young kids to eat healthily. “Hugh Feannley Whittingstall says don’t disguise food for young children, but I think he’s wrong,” says Dimbleby. “At home I give George terrible lies. Kale is moonweed. I call swede alien discs and he loves it.”

They are also opening a cookery school  for children with kidney problems and have ambitious plans to expand Leon to a global empire of no fewer than 2000 restaurants.

Dimbleby himself, an old Etonian,  admits he was lucky to grow up in a household where fresh home cooked food eaten around the dining table en famille was the norm.

He has fond memories of holidays in Devon where he picked mussels off the rocks and his mother would serve them up for dinner followed by home made plum ice cream.

“Food was a big part of our family and now we want to create a  consensus around food,” says Dimbleby.

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Go roving with your favourite poems

skimble the railway cat, ts eliotEveryone my age seems to have a favourite poem they remember from their schooldays. In my case it was Skimbleshanks, the Railway Cat by T. S Eliot. For some reason whenever I’m late for a train the lines spring into my mind… “There’s a whisper down the line, at eleven forty-nine… when the might mail is ready to depart. Saying Skimble, where is Skimble, for it’s time to hunt the thimble. And the night mail is ready to depart.”
Please forgive punctuation etc. The lines are off the top of my head, the way the verse springs into my mind. It always takes me back to my classroom in junior school, where I can picture my lovely moustachioed head teacher reading aloud to us.
So I was delighted at the news that the government is to  again reintroduce reciting and learning poetry by heart in primary schools. The proposal was contained in a “back to basics” review of the curriculum, announced by ministers early last week.
 Last week I talked to Allie Esiri, the joint creator of the first poetry app aimed at children.  Since its launch in November last year, iF Poems, which features 270 poems read by the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy and Harry Enfield, has been a bestseller. It even beat Angry Birds in the app charts on its opening weekend.
Esiri, a friend of Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife, was driven by a desire to restore poetry to children’s lives. “As a child I was not a big reader,” she explains, “though I got the bug later and ended up reading modern languages at Cambridge; but I read and re-read my one hardback poetry anthology called A Golden Treasury. Even though I didn’t think I was a madly morose child, what I loved most were poems about death. Anything by Christina Rossetti, especially Remember, Ferry Me Across the Water, and Uphill.
“At school we had a wonderful teacher, Miss Luck, who had us learning poems and reciting them in the classroom, for exams and competitions.”
Not surprisingly Esiri was “thrilled” at last week’s news that reciting poems learnt by heart is to be introduced as part of the curriculum in primary schools. For too long, she argues, poetry has “just appeared [in schools] in a comprehension exercise or some other turgid school task”.
Her own children like “funny poems”, she reveals. On train journeys she offers them rewards for learning a poem by heart. “Their first choice was a limerick, five lines only. Then a rather sweet poem by AE Housman called Amelia Mixed the Mustard — eight lines.”
Now Esiri outlines the poems she thinks children would love to learn at school. For seven-year-olds she suggests Maggie and Milly and Molly and May by EE Cummings, and The Owl and the Pussy-cat by Edward Lear. Eleven-year-olds could try Poetry Jump-Up by John Agard, who was born in Guyana and lives in Britain, or the war poem Does It Matter? by Siegfried Sassoon (see below).
Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith and We’ll Go No More A-Roving by Lord Byron are among Esiri’s top choices for 16-year-olds.
If you would like to influence the government’s choice of poetry to be learned aloud and recited in primary schools please email your suggestions to The full list of your suggestions will be published next week at

Does It Matter?  by Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967)

Does it matter? — losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.
Does it matter? — losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter — those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.
Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the estate of George Sassoon
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Breaking boundaries and teenage sex

One of the most worrying articles I researched last week for The Sunday Times was about the sexual activities of teenage (and younger) boys and girls.

I talked to an organisation called TeenBoundaries, which is to run a project in schools nationwide advising teenagers on how to deal with the pervasiveness of sexualised imagery on TV and the internet and its effects on kids’ behaviour.

In one London private school the charity was called in to work with two boys who were doctoring images of girls on Facebook before getting their friends to comment on the photos. Remarks included “Nice rack” and “Whore, I would smash her”.

In Barking, east London, the charity is advising a school where a 12-year-old girl was filmed giving oral sex to a 14-year-old pupil. The mobile phone clip, made by the boy’s friends, circulated around classmates. The same school is trying to deal with complaints that 15-year-old boys are pinning girls down in the playground and groping them.

According to Claire Walker, policy director of Family Lives, the charity which TeenBoundaries is part of, every school visited was dealing with at least one act of “sexting” — when children film themselves taking part in sexual activity and send the clips to each other’s mobile phones or post them on the internet.

Walker said: “The evidence suggests that the average age at which British girls are having sex is going down. In 1990 it was 17; in 2000 it was 16. They are now doing the research for 2010 and the expectation is that it will be 15, below the legal age of consent.”

So why is such early sexualisation happening and what can be done about it?

Factors are thought to include the prevalence of online pornography — one in eight 14- to 16-year-olds has visited pornographic websites showing violent images, according to a recent parliamentary report. At the Portland Clinic in London, 26% of young people attending for psychological treatment are hooked on internet porn. The influence of rap and gangsta culture in the media and the use of mobile phones and social networking sites for spreading sexualised images are also seen as problematical.

Typical of the scenario Hodge says she comes across in schools is an incident described to her by a 14-year-old girl. “The girl said: ‘Three years ago, when I was in year seven, five 13-year-old boys kept calling me “fit” and they followed me at break times a lot. Then one lunchtime as I was walking to the girls toilets, the boys surrounded me and two of them pinned me up on the lockers, and pushed their hand down my pants and touched me.'”

Youngsters who believe such behaviour is normal run a huge risk. Hodge is being advised by a senior criminal defence lawyer who, having seen younger and younger boys appearing in court on rape charges, has offered his help for free.

So what can be done? Family Lives would like to see children as young as four being taught about sex at primary school. It also wants parents to start talking to their young children about loving relationships.

Will this help? I’d love to know what you think

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