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An inspector calls

We are expecting the call from Ofsted and I want to make sure I am marking books correctly. What exactly are Ofsted's criteria for useful written feedback in pupils' books?

There are no formal Ofsted criteria for marking. That's because it's not for inspectors to lay down the law that marking (or anything else) has to be done in a set way.

Though inspectors will have no set expectation of any particular style of marking, they will be on the look-out for the impact of marking in helping pupils to learn and progress. It will be one of the elements that contribute to inspectors' picture of teaching and learning. It will also form part of their judgment on care, guidance and support.

Schools sometimes forget that this key inspection judgment covers not just the welfare side of provision, but also the effectiveness of the academic guidance to pupils and how this contributes to their progress and achievement.

Marking should be accurate and regular. It is unlikely to be contributing much to pupils' progress if it is erratic, or if it ticks work that is wrong.

Though marking may be used to encourage pupils' efforts, indiscriminate praise is unlikely to help. Even quite young pupils sense the devaluation of the currency where every piece of work automatically appears to merit a "well done".

If marking is of high quality, it is likely that it will be giving pupils a clear indication of what they need to do in order to do better. Inspectors may very well look to see evidence from pupils' subsequent work that they have taken on board some of the messages they have had through marking. So they will be looking for evidence that marking is actually helping to contribute to pupils' learning and raising the quality of their work. Where, for example, teachers pose questions to pupils in their marking, inspectors are likely to look to see whether these are rhetorical or whether the pupil has answered them. Have gaps in work that are commented upon subsequently been filled?

Marking may be judged inconsistent if the quality varies significantly between classes or subjects. If the school has a clear marking policy and this is not being consistently followed by staff, this may convey to inspectors a less than positive picture of the effectiveness of leadership and management.

As with all things, marking needs to be appropriate for the school and the children in it. For example, if standards of literacy are low in a school, inspectors might want to look at marking in subjects other than English to see the extent to which this reinforces or undermines what it being taught in literacy. If a lax attitude is taken to correcting lapses in spelling and punctuation, marking may be sending the pupils mixed messages: for example, as one lad once explained to me: "Literacy is only something we need to bother about in English." Inspectors will expect to see good marking and assessment reflected in learners' improved performance

Selwyn Ward has been an inspector for 15 years, working in primary and secondary schools. The views expressed here are his own. To ask him a question, email him at

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