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A marked difference

There is a famous painting of Elizabeth I, known as the Armada Portrait, in which the royal artist has dressed and surrounded his queen with copious symbols of imperial supremacy and world- class chastity. It is so overdone that I am surprised the commissioned artist wasn't sent to the Tower on account of his plainly taking the royal piss. It would be like a hired artist painting a messianic-looking Michael Gove gazing across a sunlit field to where a posse of beaming children are etching the word "rigour" into an old oak tree while their parents cheerily set about building another free school.

The Armada Portrait shows, for instance, a globe resting on a small table in front of Elizabeth, her fingers caressing the Americas. This prompted me to ask my young history class to write down why they thought the queen's hand was placed on that particular object. Never underestimate the clarity of thought inside the mind of a typical Year 7. Sam's earnest response: "Maybe to stop it rolling on to the floor?" Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

It was a bright moment in an otherwise typically gloomy evening of marking. Marking is to me what the Spanish Armada was to Sir Francis Drake - in short, "Anyone fancy a game of bowls first?" In my case, an equivalent displacement activity at home is to haul my sleeping children out of bed and offer them a frame of mini-snooker. Or there's always some online frippery ("rap battles" featuring former English teacher Mark Grist have been one recent favoured distraction). Or maybe I might catch another episode of QI on Dave.

Drake first sent in fire-ships to soften up the enemy. I, too, have tried a similar tactic, sometimes starting a stopwatch with the intention of charging into the books and setting some kind of speed-marking record for a class of 30.

But as soon as I finally open the first book, a moral obligation always overtakes me. It contains a person's thought and effort and I feel wholly obliged to read properly and to match effort with response. I might occasionally write the names of a couple of random vegetables in a margin (just to see whether they are taking any notice of what I have written), but there really is no ducking out when the marking is finally under way. Tackle it in a half-hearted way and a call on our time simply becomes a waste of time.

The rather irksome, inconvenient truth is that the more time and thought we spend on marking a piece of work, the more helpful it is in motivating, monitoring and improving. Carefully crafted, formative feedback (provided students are trained to respond to it in their subsequent work and do some peer-assessment themselves) has been found to play an immense role, dammit. But given the sheer number of students most of us teach, even the most conscientious markers are probably not marking enough.

The M-word rarely features in the great education debate. Yet I suspect that marking - how we do it, how we motivate ourselves to do it and how we find the time to do it - is as big as any of the other headaches facing teachers and teaching today.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire.

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