Here’s some feedback: marking isn’t essential

All too often, time required for vital lesson planning is swallowed up by writing copious comments that won't help pupils to learn

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I’ve long been a believer that the best use of time any teacher can make – outside of actually teaching in the classroom – is in the planning of lessons. I’m not talking about the laborious process of committing thoughts to paper, and outlining three levels of differentiation along with box-ticking about learning styles and success criteria. Rather, I’m thinking about the mental work of looking at what children can already do, and deciding how best to move the learning on. For experienced teachers, that can often be done without a laptop, or paper, or so much as an HB pencil. But it can’t be done without time.

Teachers need time to plan the learning for teaching to be at its most effective. Unfortunately, too much of that valuable time is taken up by other tasks – not least, marking.

Somehow, at some point, it became an agreed view that marking was an integral part of planning, or that somehow it would somehow automatically lead to progress. People frequently tell me that they see marking as an essential part of the job, but I’ve never felt it.

The most useful part of the marking process is the opportunity to look through the work children have completed. After that, the time spent on writing feedback that is too often underused and inconsequential is time that would be better spent on planning, as far as I’m concerned.

The reality was clear, though: the expected frequency and volume of marking increased year after year as we were told how vital it was. All the evidence appeared to suggest that we should be doing more of it. And Ofsted were there to police it. Barely a report was published that didn’t either praise voluminous marking or criticise the lack of it.

Welcome message from Ofsted

That is why the latest school inspection update should be so welcome. After months of trying to get the message through, Sean Harford – Ofsted’s national director of education– wrote to inspectors to make his directions absolutely clear: “Please do not report on marking practice, or make judgements on it, other than whether it follows the school’s assessment policy.”

As Mr Harford explains in his communication, there is no reliable evidence about the impact of marking, and so recommendations to increase either the quantity or quality of marking have no place in inspection reports. It is for schools to decide for themselves what their approach to feedback is; Ofsted’s only role is to review how effectively the school is implementing its own work.

People frequently tell me they see marking as an essential part of the job

It’s important to note that my argument is not one against feedback at all. For that, we do have some clear evidence: the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit rates it as one of the most effective interventions available. But we should take care not to confuse the two. Feedback comes in many forms, from lengthy summaries of success criteria met, to the silent raising of an eyebrow in the classroom. Every time that we correct spelling, or ask our students a probing question, we’re providing feedback.

And what’s more, we make excellent use of feedback each day in the opposite direction every time we respond to the children in front of us. Feedback happens constantly in our classrooms, as we adapt lessons, listen to pupil responses, peer over their shoulders and ask questions. Teachers are experts at feedback – we don’t need to write it down to prove it.

And next time someone tells you that we have to do it for Ofsted, refer them to the horse’s mouth.

Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire

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