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Saturday 27 September 2014

Review: OMY Colouring Posters

At the end of August a press release dropped into my inbox to advise me about some beautiful colouring products available from OMY Design and Play. After a browse on their website I realised that my children would like these products especially Miss E (aged 7 years) and my boy JJ (aged 10 years) and I said yes to a couple of products for review.

It is now about a 3 weeks after they have arrived and I have to be honest and say they have hardly been used. When they first arrived the kids saw them and 'ohhed' and 'ahhed' about how nice they were and my twin girls sat down to do some colouring straight away - one with pencils and one with felt tips (always different those two). They told me they liked the placements and they seemed to be enjoying themselves but realistically they didn't want to sit at the large dining table (where the placement would sit flat)  they wanted to sit on the floor and use the coffee table so they could watch TV at the same time. This made things a bit harder as the placements are bigger than an average size tray and they always use trays on the coffee table to protect the wood.

The actual placements are each 30 x 42cm and are a good quality thick paper, it is also recycled which is good. There are 24 place mats in a pack and we choose the City Map design, which means we had 6 each of the following - Paris, London, New York, Rio, Tokoyo and Atlas. We also could have chosen the Fantastic design pack. Each pack of 24 placements retails for £13.90 and that makes it about 60p per placement, which I don't think is bad value at all, given the good quality paper, the size and the intricate designs for colouring.

Postage in included in the price of the product and I love that, nothing hidden. That is normally the thing that puts me off buying online. There are also options to pay if you wish for courier service and to receive the product quicker than the standard 2-3 day delivery time.

We also received a London giant colouring poster, this measures 1.14m x 0.8 metres and is designed to go on a wall, the floor or a large table. We have not used this yet as I am saving it for a children's event I'm running in November. I will use masking tape to put it on the tiled floor and then lots of children will be able to colour it at the same time when we have messy church with a theme of love our world, God's special creation. The giant poster retails for £9.90 and again postage is included in that price. It comes folded into a small cardboard case and thus posts easily, you can see the folds when you undo it and that annoys me a little but my kids were not bothered by it when I asked them.

We have found that pencil, crayon and felt tip pens all work well on the OMY colouring products and that gives the child choice to use whatever they fancy. I do think these products are lovely if you want to sit down quietly and companionably with your child and do some colouring together, I can imagine Miss E and my mum doing this on a cold winters day. I think that has been some of the problem in the last few weeks, there has hardly been a spare moment.  The kids have all gone back to school, there has been tons of homework and we have had plans each weekend as well as visitors for a week. I know these products will come into their own when it is too cold or wet to venture out into the wonderful 220 acres that we live in.

You can see below the size of the giant poster and also the intricate detail of the poster.

There are six different designs of the giant poster and that means there is something to suit everyone and if this one is not large enough for you then you might be interested in the giant colouring roll this is 1.8 m x 1 metre and I think it would be fantastic as a centre piece for a birthday party, school holiday club or maybe Sunday club. It retails for £19.90.

In all these are really nice products but because they are so large it means they are not very portable and have not been played with as much as say a smaller colouring book that is easy to take to the car or a restaurant or a day trip out.

Disclosure: We received these colouring products free of charge for the purpose of this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Free School Lunch for Every Child in Infant Schools in England

Such a shame that my little girls have moved into Key Stage 2 and won't be eligable for free school meals!

In an attempt to help ease the financial burden on families with young children in England, Nick Clegg has announced free school lunches for every child in state funded infant schools. Influenced by the recommendations of the government commissioned School Food Plan, the new policy entitles every child under 8 to high quality lunches saving parents on average £437 per child over the year.

For years government bodies, health authorities and the media have reiterated the benefits of high quality meals in cognitive development and learning in children. There are numerous reports and studies highlighting the correlation between children eating highly nutritious meals both before and at school leading to an increase in academic performance, healthier eating habits and a reduction in childhood obesity.

Students who were involved in the pilot study in County Durham and Newham provide evidence to support these claims as they were reported to have experienced positive improvements in their health, attainment and social cohesion with the introduction of the universal free school meals. They were found to be on average 2 months ahead of their peers elsewhere in England and were more likely to achieve their target levels at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 in Maths and English. The introduction of universal free school meals within these areas reportedly did more to improve literacy levels than the nationwide introduction of the compulsory ‘literacy hour’ in 1998. Interestingly, the pupils whose results improved the most markedly were children from the poorest households who benefited from the removal of social stigma and an improvement in atmosphere.

Even with the unarguable of pupils eating healthily at school, the introduction of the universal free school meals policy still has its objectors. Although head teachers and local authorities have voiced their support for the introduction of the new policy, there is a growing concern with schools preparing for the launch of the new national curriculum and upgrading their dining facilities that the government has over-promised and under-delivered. Nearly 2700 schools will not be ready to serve hot meals by December with students being offered cold meals until facilities can be upgraded or kitchens built.

The government has made just over £170m available to help schools upgrade their dining facilities to the latest high quality stainless steel kitchens to comply with their stringent health and safety guidelines, but this is reportedly not enough. There is a reported short fall of £25m in cash required to provide free school meals with local authorities diverting funds that were originally earmarked to repair school roofs to plug the shortfall.

At £600m, the overall yearly cost of the universal free school meals policy, may seem quite steep, it is a lot less than the £6bn a year it costs the British tax payer for treating illnesses caused by a bad diet. The introduction of the universal free school meals policy highlights the government’s long term commitment to our children’s learning and welfare as well as easing the financial burden on families. As Nick Clegg states: “Universal free school meals will help give every child the chance in life that they deserve, building a stronger economy and fairer society.”

What do you think of the introduction of free school meals for children under 8? Have your children enjoyed the free meals? All comments are welcome below.

Everybody Learns

I've recently become aware of a company called Everybody Learns and I have to say that I really like that company name. It is so true, everybody does learn but they just might do it at different rates and in different ways.

This is what Everybody Learns says about themselves on their website -
The Everybody Learns website is the work of teachers who believe we can make a difference. It attempts to present an accurate picture of education in this country, in so far as it is relevant to reading. In addition we provide advice on how to prevent or overcome the problems children will encounter in our schools.We are a learning support business based in North Yorkshire in the UK. We offer reading software solutions and other resources to help children learn. We have customers across the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
As far as I can tell the biggest product that Everybody Learns supplies is their online reading software Lexia, This is a subscription based service that I've not had any experience with. They also sell reading and writing workbooks suitable for first readers and both younger and older readers. These can be used alongside the Lexia reading course or independently. We had received some of these workbooks for review with my daughter Miss E, but it turns out that right now I can't use them with her. She has just gone into KS2 and as she has dyslexia she is overwhelmed with the change in learning styles that KS2 has bought. Her homework has tripled and thus we need to allow her time to settle and to feel happy in her education, I won't be one of those pushy Mums, her well being is far more important to me than her educational attainment level.

We received the complete set (8 books) of Lexia reading and writing workbooks for younger children. As a parent I found it quite hard to know what level I should be buying for my child as I could not see any indication of age or school year that might help guide me.

There is a full list of what is covered in each of the levels and it looks something like this "Level 4 Skills: Blending and segmenting vowel digraphs and vowel-r words, reading and writing two syllable words, reading and writing sentences, reading stories and answering comprehension questions, reading and spelling sight vocabulary words, learning word meanings." but actually that did not help me at all as I'm not a teacher and not aware what my children should be doing at what age.

Each workbook is between 45 - 49 pages long and they are printed on thick folded A3 paper so they do start to look quite dog-eared pretty quickly but I suppose this is not a problem as they will be short lived and moved through fairly quickly. Also at £24.99 for a set of 8 workbooks (including postage) that is only about £3.10 per workbook so they are a good price.

At the beginning of each workbook there is a key explaining what the child needs to do within the book and this gives good visual clues and is nice and clear. Then at the top of most pages you see those signs helping the child be aware of what they have to do. There is no colour or stickers to the workbooks so they are much more school like and lack the fun of something like the Gold Star books, but your younger child can colour in the pictures and they might enjoy that.

Here are a few sample pages from the books. Some of them do look quite wordy as you can see in the bottom right image -

We were also sent the set of workbooks for older children, called Strategies for Older Students and I can honestly say there are pages in those that I have no idea about; it feels to me as if they were designed for teachers/ tutors to use with students rather than parents. It does mention a Teachers Notes but I was not sent that and maybe that is the key to understanding those books.

After having a good look around the Everybody Learns website I was a bit saddened to see statements such as this -
* If you are a parent who is concerned about your child’s reading progress you are almost certainly right to be so. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. The truth is that if your child struggles with reading, you cannot trust the schools to help them overcome their difficulties. Overwhelmingly, they fail to do so.
* If you have been told by your child’s school that his or her reading progress is satisfactory, check it out. This might not be the case.
* The standards set by the UK government for our children are much too low and, even so, too many children fail to achieve them.
It does feel a bit like scare mongering to me and I don't like that. I'm not saying our UK schools are perfect but equally I don't feel making children spend hours at home (in the style of the Japanese or Chinese education systems) is right either.

The free reading assessment did seem quite useful and I had a go myself at both year 2 and year 6. It was simple and easy to work and I might get Miss E to try this out as it will give me an idea what level she is at. I won't be doing it with my other two as I can see from their interaction with me and home learning that they are age appropriately developing in their reading skills.

On the left is one of the pages of the year 2 test and it audibly asks me to click on words. Then on the right is the assessment from my year 6 test.

The Everybody Learns blog is worth checking out and there are regular posts recommending books for your child's reading age, this is great for me as my JJ (aged 11 years) is an avid reader and I never know what to buy him as he has devoured most books I know if already. I also read a feature about helping your pre-schooler with phonics and actually some of the tips are probably still really applicable now for me to use with my Miss E who is still struggling to master reading.

I think if you are the kind of parent that is interested in your child getting in some extra reading and writing practise at home then you might enjoy these workbooks.

Disclosure: We were sent the workbooks free of charge for the purpose of a review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

The Lake District Dairy Co Quark Cooking Sauces

A couple of weeks ago I was sent a nice hamper of ingredients so I could try out the new Lake District Diary Co cooking sauces. It is always good to receive one of these kind of hampers as it forces me to move out of my boring routine and to try something different. I'm not the worlds most inventive cook (despite being a qualified Chef!) and we could end up with the same meals all the time if I didn't occasionally stretch myself.

These cooking sauces are made from Quark and I can't recall if I've ever tried Quark before to be honest. I mentioned it to my husband and he turned his nose up, saying when he had it in his younger years it was awful so I was then interested to see what he thought of the cooking sauces.

Quark is spoonable soft cheese made from British cows milk and it is good to be using a product that is made at home and has not travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles to get to me. The Cooking sauces are sold in a 200g pot and they look very attractive. The retail price is £1.75 and this is comparable to other sauces I might buy. there are currently three flavours - Garlic and Herb, Tikka and Tomato and Basil and all are naturally low in fat.

None of the sauces contain any preservatives or artificial flavours and they seem to come with about a 2-3 week shelf life and as a diary product they must of course be kept chilled. I think these cooking sauces make a great healthy alternative to other diary ingredients such as creme fraiche or double cream and what is really good is that the sauce can be used as a cold dip, so is fabulous for buffets and packed lunches too.

My favourite sauce was definitely the tikka, it came with the ingredients to make Chicken Tikka and Quark rice and we all really liked this. It was not too spicy but was flavoursome and made a good biriyani style meal, although the consistency of the meal was wetter than  a biriyani but that did not bother us. Everyone asked for seconds of this.

I was asked to make a Quark version of spaghetti carbonara, they called it Quarkonara which made me smile. It is impressive when you read that using this cooking sauce instead of cream cheese will reduce the fat content of the dish by 28g, a massive 88% and the calories per portion dropped by 227 kcals too. I also like the ease of the cooking sauce, cook the pasta and pour in the sauce, ham and a little cooking water and perfect finished dish once heated a bit. Sadly for me I thought the taste of this was pretty foul, one of my daughters would eat it but the other refused and I had to cook her something else so we wouldn't buy the Garlic and Herb one again, it was just too strong in smell and taste.

As far as the tomato and basil sauce is concerned we never got to use it. It was in date but when I opened it I noticed there was a bit of the orange around the outer lid which made me wonder if it had burst a little in transit. I assume it had as when I put my finger in to try a little it was fizzy and tasted bad. It also stained my hands as it is a vivid orange colour, so I've really been put off that one I'm afraid.

Our family would buy the tikka sauce again as it was very pleasant with the rice, sadly the other two are not for our family.

Disclosure: We received a hamper ingredients for the purpose of this review, I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Thursday 4 September 2014

Get the Label - a fabulous find!

Have you heard of GettheLabel.com? I hadn’t before they contacted me and as I’m now becoming a convert to online shopping I was sure pleased to find out about an online store which offers up to 75% off brand name clothes and accessories. You can find popular brands including Converse, Adidas, Kickers and Quicksilver

My children were sent an item of clothing each to review and see what we thought of the kind of things stocked on Get The Label.

JJ received a Le Breve navy blue hoodie and he loved it, it was so much better than his regular ones bought from high street stores, it has a lined hood and the material feels really thick and comfortable (50% cotton and 50% polyester). I don’t think there is any chance of the zip coming off in the washing machine as has just happened with one of his other ones. We ordered a size 13-14 years and it feels true to size.

The hoodie can be machine washed but I was a little sad to see it can’t be tumble dried as I do not have an outside line but I suppose at least this means there won’t be any shrinkage like there is with some tumble dried items. This hoodie retails for £14.99, instead of the RRP of £34.99.

You can see from these pictures that JJ is loving his new hoodie. He commented to me the other day that he looked like a teenager in it and apparently this is a good thing!

I ordered a coat for Miss E but she decided it was better on her twin sister as Miss M is more into fashion and in her words ‘this is a big girls coat’. So Miss M turned out to be lucky and she got a coat and a pair of hi-top trainers.

First up is her Bench coat, it is black with a great pattern on the external stitching. The interior is shocking pink and it has nice Bench branding on the front. The sleeves are cuffed to keep her warm in winter and the material feels as it is would give good warmth even though this coat is not too thick or too heavy.

The coat retails for £29.99, which is a saving of £10 against the RRP, it is machine washable and has a special waterproof coating that will last for the first ten washes. As the coat is black I’m hoping it won’t need washing too much as actually ten washes is not that long and I’d want the coat to remain waterproof for the full duration of her needing to wear it, we are in rainy Britain after all!

The other product Miss M received is Supra skytop trainers and she is absolutely in love with these, she thinks she is some kind of cool teenage street dancer/ skateboarder in them which suits me just fine as they are a nice sturdy pair of trainers.

The pink colour of these trainers is lovely and they are finished well with white trims, you can see the Supra branding really easily. They can be laced fully to the top or just on the lower part and we now have to teach Miss M to tie her own laces as it is a bit of a bind having to help her constantly. The tongues are nice and soft so they are easy to get off and the ankle support is padded.

These trainers are a super bargain, they cost £19.99 on Get the Label and the RRP is £49.99 so that is a massive 61% saving.

Our parcel arrived nice and quickly and was well packaged. Standard delivery is £3.95 and will arrive in about 3-5 days. Next day delivery is available for £5.95, although I see standard delivery is free right now (when you spend £40) if you use the code FDGTL4 at the checkout. It is good to see that if you return any unworn item in 21 days you can get an exchange or full refund.

In all we loved our clothes from Get the Label and I will happily buy from here again.

Disclosure: We received these items free of charge for the purpose of this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.

Monday 1 September 2014

Back to school with BHS

We are literally round the corner from being back at school now and it has been an amazing summer but it is time for the kids to get back into routine I can see that. The summer holiday is gone is such a flash that it is important to really embrace and enjoy it and I think we have done that with some wonderful holidays, family days out and even just some downtime alone and with friends.

I’ve mentioned before that I am super organised with uniform and I generally like to have it all long before now. I had thought I was sorted but then BHS contacted me and asked if we would like to trial some of their uniform. I’ve not bought BHS school uniform for the kids before and I’m not really sure why as I like BHS as a shop and have some of their clothes myself.

Generous Fit
The thing that appealed to me about BHS uniform is that they have a generous fit as well as the standard fit. My 10 year old son is very tall for his age and a bit more rounded in the middle than the average child and we struggle to find trousers to suit him. The current trend of slim or skinny cut trousers does nothing for him and generally he likes an elasticated waist for comfort. That was fine when he was younger but hardly anywhere makes trousers for 13 year old boys (about the size he wears) with elasticated waists and I understand why as most are fashion conscious by that point and don’t want to be wearing them.
Senior boys school trousers

This is where BHS have come up trumps for us. Their generous cut trousers are bigger in width but not in length and this means an age 12 trousers fits JJ perfectly. The waits has a secret stretch panel at the side hidden into the pocket and this means they can move and stretch with him. We have already tried them out and JJ is calling them his smart trousers as he has worn them to help out at Daddy’s work for a day or two in the summer.

The trousers are a thick material and at first feel a bit stiff but after a wash they are fine and I think they will last a good amount of time due to the quality of the 65% polyester and 35% acrylic fabric. I also like the fact they can be machine washed and tumble dried without the need for any ironing, this makes my life much easier.

Other good features of the trousers are well secured hems so I don’t have to keep re-hemming trousers that fall apart (I’ve had that before!), large front and back pockets and a Teflon coating to help repel stains and keep the trousers looking smart. They are available in black and charcoal (which is a very dark grey).

Senior boys school shirts
We also requested some generous fit white shirts as JJ is going into year 6 he has decided he would like to look smarter and wear a tie sometimes and of course cotton polo shirts don’t really work with a tie. As I was ordering near the end of the summer I had trouble getting the size I wanted for JJ but looking on the website I see they are now back in stock. We received a pack of two long sleeved white shirts in generous fit, age 14 and they really do look enormous, far too big for JJ. So we will take these to our local store and swap them for some smaller ones.

In regards to the shirts themselves they look nice quality, that fabric used is 65% polyester and 35% cotton which is probably a higher polyester content than I would ideally like. I know this makes them better for washing and tumbling and less need for ironing but as JJ is heading into puberty years I suspect he would be better in a shirt with a higher cotton content to keep him cool and with minimal sweat. This two pack of non-iron stain release shirts is £12 and each has a reinforced collar, so the tie will look smart with them, a front breast pocket and long button cuff sleeves. There are also a variety of other senior boys shirts available and prices start from £9 for a two pack, they come in white or pale blue.

Boys winter coat
The last thing we received for JJ was a winter coat. We did in fact buy JJ’s last coat from BHS and it lasted the season really well and for a boy who batters his coat and really puts it through the mill I was super pleased. The coat we received this time is grey with a green lining and it looks really stylish.

JJ was laughing at me when I made him try it on as it was one of the only beautiful days we have had in the last two weeks, this week I can fully believe that he will be wearing this to school every day soon as the cooler weather is arriving. You can buy a basic winter coat from BHS from £18 for an older boy and I think this is a great price, it was just this basic one we bought last year.

This year’s coat that we have received starts at £28 for age 8 upwards and goes up to £32 for a 15/16 years. It features panel stitching, contrast lime panels and reflective trims. Two front pockets with snap flaps and two chest zip pockets will keep valuables safe. Contrast lime polar fleece lining is used throughout and JJ loves that it feels so snug. There is also has a snap closed chin guard and rib storm cuffs and velcro tabs on the sleeves keep arms warm and dry for when the cold winds and snow comes. Again the coat is machine washable which is a necessity with my messy boy.

Overall we are very pleased with the uniform we have received from BHS and I would happily shop there again for both the kids and I. If you need generous fit uniform this is the place to visit as it is still stylish but also practical for your child’s size.

Disclosure: We received these items free of charge for the purpose of this review. I have not been instructed what to write and I remain honest.