It was the first few days of the academic year when the question arose. A teacher popped their head around my office door and casually asked, “Have you got a copy of the marking policy?”
In retrospect, my response – seeing as I am the headteacher – probably did not inspire the confidence it should have: “No, but if you find where it is I’d love to have a look at it."
It turns out that when you are new to a school as a headteacher – with a new deputy head, literacy lead, new key stage 1 team and no maths lead – tracking down marking policies is not your number one priority...
When we did finally track a copy down, there were two stand-out features.
Firstly, it was elegantly simple in its instructions – respond to the children’s work in their books.
Secondly, it had that all-important consistency rule, which, as I have been told time and time again, is what Ofsted cares about – positive comments should be written in green pen and negative comments in purple.
There were three stages to my reaction.
First, horror at the choice of colours, which clearly clash.
Second, rebellion at being told to use compulsory colours.
And, finally, discomfort. There was no way I felt comfortable insisting that teachers spend hours marking in a way that none of us had any role in designing, particularly as there was no clear rationale as to why they should do so. Where was the evidence showing that this was effective?
It was clear that we needed to start again.
Hunting for research
Having an almost new cohort of teachers was a benefit, rather than a barrier. There were no binds of the usual "this is how things are done around here" culture because we barely knew each other. In addition, the team came with a multitude of experiences, including from international teaching, which could be drawn from.
And there was also a strong appetite to create a marking approach that would stick two fingers up to all the rigid policies that had been drilled into us in previous establishments over the years.
Focused staff meetings took place in intervals over a non-academic year where research was presented or read, summarised and debated. Three resources were of particular use in being accessible and succinct: the Education Endowment Foundation’s summary of effective feedback; Dylan Wiliam’s work on assessment and feedback; and the Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking report from the government’s Independent Teacher Workload Review Group.
What we did
After sharing techniques from experience and from the research conducted, we trialled different styles of marking, including: symbols instead of comments; pupils marking their own work; ticking off ready-made success criteria; marking only individual targets; ‘light’ marking where work was just ticked; ‘heavy’ marking with detailed feedback; and writing ‘action’ points – short tasks that the pupil had to complete in the next lesson.
Teachers across all key stages found the use of consistent symbols effective. Pupils at different abilities of reading were trained in what they meant and it was quick for the teacher to address common misconceptions.
In key stage 2, pupils marking their own work was particularly successful. Getting instant, in-lesson feedback for procedural tasks in maths and literacy meant that teachers were able within the lesson to pick up on common errors and adapt their lesson accordingly.
The "action" points had mixed reviews. When they drew attention to an area that the teacher knew the pupil was able to correctly self-edit they were useful, but too much time was spent making up and writing out individual questions, which then required the teacher to check up to see if they had done so correctly. This was dangerously close to "triple marking" territory.
Around this time, I started investigating "no marking" approaches in other schools, where teachers would make brief notes on performance in the books rather than write in each book. Acutely aware of the time that is taken in marking and how this could be spent on planning instead, I was sold. Convinced that this was the answer, I insisted that for half a term all teachers would trial this approach.
But the response surprised me. After six weeks, though some staff acknowledged that they no longer had the sinking feeling in their stomach when faced with a pile of 30 books at the end of the day, not marking had led to other issues.
Despite explaining to pupils what we were trialling and why, a number of pupils expressed their unease at having nothing written in their book by their teacher.
“But how do I know whether you have read it or not?” was a common response (who needs Ofsted to hold you to account when you have nine-year-olds?).
Some pupils felt demotivated by this and commented that whole-class feedback given in the next lesson was not always relevant to where they were and what they needed to work on.
Over time, I think the pupils would have become used to this, but it was interesting to hear their view.
And despite my eagerness for no marking, teachers insisted that they wanted the option to mark. This was particularly true for independent extended writing. These pieces are important evidence for attainment and progress across units of work. Not being allowed to mark was causing a hindrance in delivering feedback to pupils.
While teachers valued having the opportunity to not mark, sometimes they were itching to highlight things such as errors in spelling, grammar or calculation error that could be easily corrected by drawing attention to it.
Other times, they wanted to give personal acknowledgement for successful work. For example, an effective use of phrasing, improvement in handwriting, or just old-fashioned effort.
However, there were some examples where they were adamant that marking was not an efficient use of time. For example, shorter pieces of work where it was simple to assess as correct or not.
So where have we ended up?
After all this experimenting and debating, we have come back to our principles that the feedback that is given is the one that is most effective at that point. In essence, teachers have been given autonomy over this choice.
So instead of a blanket approach, we have a menu of strategies that a teacher could use to "mark" work. We have developed a set of commonly used symbols we can use instead of full comments, which are consistent across the year groups. Teachers can choose not to use written responses and we are designing a teacher "feedback book" that teachers can use to make notes if they are not marking.
We recognise that small things are significant when it comes to saving time, so we are currently trialling specially designed exercise books for our KS2 pupils. Each page has a tick box to indicate who has assessed the work (teacher, pupil or peer) and a tick box to indicate whether the learning objective has been met.
This approach does not mean that teachers are not held to account – it’s just that instead of a leader looking at a book and making a judgement on the impact of marking from afar, leaders have conversations with teachers about what type of feedback was given and the impact of this for the pupils.
Ruth Luzmore is Headteacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy. She tweets @RLuzmore
This is an edited version of a feature in the 2 November issue of Tes, in which Ruth goes into more detail about the process and the policy now in place at the school. Click here to read the full article.