When one of the characters in the school-based TV drama Reach for the Moon faced the prospect of an embarrassing juxtaposition of boyfriends, she got out of the pub by saying: "Must go, I've got my marking to do." In teaching circles, there is no answer to that. The ritual of marking comes at the centre of a time-honoured cycle - you set the work, the children do it, you collect in the books, you mark them, you return them, the children respond with grunts, shrieks or shrugs of indifference.
Sonya Hryb, key stage 4 English co-ordinator at Finham Park comprehensive in Coventry, has just marked a set of 30 essays on Richard III, some of them covering eight sides of A4. Each took about 15 minutes to read and annotate. In other words, she spent the equivalent of a full extra day on one assignment of written work from just one of her teaching groups.
And while teachers may grumble, most accept it as part of the job. "It goes with the territory," says Andy Snart, head of geography at Finham Park. "I cannot remember a time in my whole career when I had no marking to do. It's a hard slog, but it has to be done. It's a point of contact - giving feedback on an individual basis. There are no shortcuts."
Teachers understand that children make judgments on the quality and promptness of their marking. "We all like feedback," says Andy Snart. "My own kids rate those staff who will turn round work promptly." So, although the normal secondary school turnaround time is about a week - or perhaps Monday to Friday - Andy Snart will deliberately turn up the heat when exams loom. "You may turn round their work overnight in order to create a sense of urgency."
What does all of this do to a teacher's social and family life? The pattern seems to be to do some school work on every evening of the week, with the possible exception of Friday. At the weekend, Saturday is commonly kept free for family, and then there is a solid session of marking and preparation on Sunday.
Both Sonya Hryb and Andy Snart feel that some teachers become slaves to their marking. Sonya recalls a friend, a science teacher, who eventually left the profession because of it. "He was marking endlessly. He just seemed to get drawn into it." The battle is to keep the marking load under control, and retain some freedom of action.
Good planning is the key: care in the setting of work so that the marking load is spread through the week, and care in the choice of tasks. A reading homework, for example, can be as rigorous as a written exercise provided it is professionally dealt with in the next lesson. "I can test whether students have understood a poem by putting them into groups to discuss it," says Sonya Hryb, who also advocates putting a lot of early effort into getting all her students to do homework, thereby cutting down on the time spent chasing no-shows through the year. In September she asks them for their home phone numbers ("Why do you need it, Miss?" "So I can phone your parents when you don't do your homework").
Finham Park's head of physics, Stan Davies, is an evangelist on the subject of planning. His marking, he says, falls into two groups: exercise book marking and assessed coursework. He marks exercise books (a mixture of class and homework) about every two weeks. He does as much as he can in his non-contact time - about six periods a week out of 30, some of which are inevitably lost to staff cover and others to departmental matters. (Primary teachers invariably point out that they have virtually no non-contact time at all.) Stan Davies works his marking to a strict timetable. "If I don't finish it during the day, then I stay at school, perhaps until 6.30pm." He plans all of his work several weeks ahead, making allowances for pressure points such as report writing, tests and exams, and never marks at night for the next day. "I would get into that position when I was a young teacher - you get in a state and you end up shouting at the children." He says the secret to keeping the marking load under control is to have it in mind from the moment you plan and set work. That way you can be clear about what points you are going to look for, share this with the children, and mark to those points.
Sonya Hryb starts work as soon as she gets home, but tries to stop by 8.30pm, which is just about when Andy Snart gets going, after spending the early evening with his family.
It's clear that many teachers can run their social and family life only by being relentlessly disciplined and organised, which is why primary teachers, with no free periods unless the head lets them out of the occasional assembly, view with alarm the introduction of of an externally imposed, rigorous homework policy. One thorny issue for primaries, for example, is whether and how homework can be made compulsory.
At Canon Maggs, a popular Church of England junior school in Warwickshire where the relatively formal homework programme predates DfEE guidelines by several years, a homework diary goes home with pupils every week to be signed by parents. It is a vehicle for reminding them about work not completed, and is an issue for discussion at parent consultations once a term. Nevertheless, some children never do it. Says head Rod Steward: "It upsets me to go round the cloakroom on a Friday evening and see books that you know should have gone home - and it's always the same children."
Phil Jones, head of Alderman Richard Hallam school on the edge of the Beaumont Leys estate in Leicester, is just starting to firm up his school's homework policy. He is clear that with literacy and numeracy already increasing the pressure and the new curriculum about to arrive, homework programmes must involve little or no extra marking. He is also sure that homework must involve parents and not consist of private tasks for the child.
This philosophy largely stems from the school's experience, in key stage 1, with the Community Education Development Centre's (CEDC) Share programme of home and school workbooks and projects. As well as extending Share, Phil Jones has a working party of teachers and governors trawling for similar home-school books and programmes to use all the way through the school.
The issues surrounding homework are still unresolved for many primaries. In particular there are questions about marking load. Importantly, too, many schools do not want to import the secondary approach but to extend upwards the key stage 1 philosophy of making homework into a shared home-school, parent and child task. This implies the need to consult parents and involve them in an area which, in their own schooldays, was a matter largely between the child and the school.
Details of the Share project are available from CEDC, Woodway Park school and community college, Wigston Road,Coventry CV2 2RH.Tel: 0247 665 5700.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
HOW IT'S DONE.
* Be disciplined - work to a timetable.
* Bear in mind the marking load as you plan your lessons.
* Explain to pupils what you will be looking for in the task, then mark those points. Don't just mark everything in sight.
* Keep ahead of yourself so you can at least consider going to the pub if friends call.
* Return some work individually, with one-to-one comments, while the class works quietly.
* Attempt to have one completely free evening, plus one free weekend day every week.
* Don't assume that the only possible homework is written work. There are techniques for testing reading and research in oral lessons.
* Return work on time, thoroughly and positively marked.
* Relentlessly pursue "no-show" homework early in the school year. The effort will pay off.
* Collect homework pupil by pupil, ticking off the names in your mark book. This gives a strong message of serious intent, and heads off the child who will later say: "I gave it to you Miss, don't you remember?"