How can schools support teachers awarding grades?

Teacher-assessed grades are taking their toll on staff, says Helen Mars, who explains how schools can provide support

Helen Mars

GCSEs and A levels 2021: How schools can support teachers awarding grades

Quite rightly, schools have put a lot of effort into supporting students in exam years with the changes to how grades are being assigned this year. But how much time have we taken to really think about how we are supporting teachers through the process?

On a whole-school level, now is the time to cut a swathe through any bureaucratic or burdensome extras: cut out extraneous meetings, cancel directed time and halt learning walks.

These steps are partly about reducing staff workload, but it's also about reducing staff mental load, too. When leaders do this, they are sending a strong signal that the pressures teachers are facing are understood, and the school management team are doing everything possible to make their lives easier.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Supporting teachers who are awarding grades

But how can this be done? Here are some steps you can take:

1. Bring in external support

Rachael Wainwright, head of department in a secondary school in the North of England, says sometimes you need to rope in extra pairs of hands, and that if you have the budget to buy in external invigilators, it can be worth the money to buy your staff some breathing space.

"It's simple. [What staff need is] time. Time to mark, time to moderate," she says.

2. Go case by case

When it comes to allocating scant resources, although it might seem fairest to treat all subjects the same, that may not be the best solution, given that there are very different ways of working and assessing in the different subjects.

"It's not one size fits all," says Jennie Eyres, a former classroom teacher who is now an education consultant. 

For instance, marking scripts for "essay subjects" such as history is often more time-consuming than marking scripts with lots of shorter answers.

3. Teachers support teachers

It's not just up to management, though: we all have a part to play in creating a supportive climate for colleagues, who may be facing significant challenges in balancing the workload of creating TAGs alongside teaching their own classes and managing their lives outside of school.

One deputy headteacher advocates "asking twice" whenever you check in with a colleague. This means not just saying "Are you OK?", but adding a follow-up question. "Is there anything I can do to help?", "What could you ignore for a few weeks?" or "Which days are likely to be most pressured?"

We can all feel obliged to reply to a closed question by simply confirming that we're "OK" even when we're not. Asking more open questions can give better opportunities for meaningful and supportive conversations: how is your week going? What's going well right now?

4. Make the time to check in on staff 

Rather than enquiring after colleagues when we are busy, distracted or not really listening, we need to make it clear that we are asking because we really want to hear the answer.

Choose an unhurried moment, use open body language and direct eye contact to make it clear that you are genuinely interested in hearing their reply. 

5. Take the time to say 'well done'

We know students love praise, treats and perks, and little gestures can go a long way to creating a cheerful atmosphere and one where staff feel like a strong team. Providing coffee and biscuits in the staffroom is an easy win, but it also encourages staff to see this space as a place where they can stop and take the time to connect and to offer each other support.

If you're having to operate without a staffroom, then an email with specific personal praise or thank yous can make sure that you feel noticed and appreciated. Passing on any messages of support and gratitude from parents to staff is a lovely gesture, reminding them that their efforts are valued. 

6. Some staff are more vulnerable than others

Some groups of staff may face particular challenges: new staff, NQTs and RQTs, those returning from parental leave, for example, may need extra support. Giving them a designated buddy (someone other than their assigned mentor) can be an invaluable help both personally and professionally. 

As with all discussions about wellbeing in schools, not all ideas are possible in all settings, but a concerted effort to support staff practically and emotionally has to be a priority now, in these few mad weeks, perhaps more than it has ever been. 

Helen Mars is an English teacher in Yorkshire

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