Marking? It’ll be gone in a flash

Head of English Sarah Cunliffe developed a code system for marking that reduced workload and improved feedback at her school and, she says, it could do the same for you, too

Sarah Cunliffe

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Let’s be clear: teachers are drowning or, at best, treading water under monstrous mountains of marking. It can totally take over your life if you let it.

That’s why I decided to change things at my school. As a subject leader, I felt it was my responsibility to offer solutions. So I sat down and looked to develop a strategy that would reduce workload, speed up feedback and enable students to develop their metacognitive skills by taking a proactive role in their learning. The result was Flash marking. This is how it works:


To put it simply, all of the skills required to access the top band of GCSE English and English literature performance have been translated into short codes. All feedback is written using these shorthand codes that correspond logically to specific skills. Each student gets a maximum of two codes on a piece of work (“What Went Well” and “Even Better If”). The students have a translation sheet so they know what the code means.

For example: CR = creative and original ideas; AP = ambitious punctuation.

This approach significantly reduces time spent on marking. One colleague stated that instead of spending an hour and 15 minutes slogging through 30 “Is Macbeth a hero or villain?” Year 10 essays and losing all will to live, she can now mark the same style of question in 35 minutes. Not only does it speed up the marking process but students receive their feedback more quickly – something they seem to love.


Sean Harford, national director for education at Ofsted, has stated: “There is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning.”

So why bother doing any, I hear you ask?

If we don’t, students will think: why bother if no one is looking? Flash marking enables students to see themselves climbing (sometimes in very small steps) up the ladder of success towards the elusive Grade 9.


I used to get extremely frustrated that I would spend what seemed like an eternity marking books with an array of motivational comments and next steps for students to build on, only to find they were frequently ignored or passed over while they focused solely on the grade awarded.

By adopting a “no grades” policy – students in English do not receive any grades or bands on their work, except for mock examinations – this has been eliminated. I won’t lie, my top sets initially detested this approach and simply wanted to know their grade, but now they actually absorb my comments as they are “forced” into reading the codes on their work and use the “translation” sheet in their exercise book to write the skills they have either nailed or are yet to nail.


There is very little evidence regarding the impact of self-assessment and the post-learning reflection phase, where students evaluate and consider how they might adjust their approach next time. But, according to Zimmerman and Moylan (2008), peer-marking and self-assessment can be supported by written feedback.

We need to explicitly model how to peer and self-assess work. Flash marking enables students to take a proactive role in their learning by regularly revisiting previous targets, embedding improvements in their future assessments and evidencing where they have been met. Consistently using codes in feedback ensures competency and creates more reflective learners that genuinely understand how to improve their work.


Teachers record the codes issued to each student on a specialised spreadsheet. By analysing the data, teachers are efficiently able to: plug gaps in knowledge and save valuable teaching time by not explicitly teaching skills that students have already grasped. The analysis of skills will inform future planning and any required intervention.

Before, when I looked at our departmental tracking sheet, I could easily identify how many students would be likely to achieve a certain grade. However, without going and speaking to individual teachers, I had no idea what was preventing them from progressing.

With Flash marking, it is easy because the tracking sheet solely consists of skills. This approach reduces the amount of time required to mark work and also provides a more diagnostic approach to recording data that should improve planning and intervention.

The impact

We have significantly reduced time spent on marking, empowered students to take a more proactive role in their learning, enabled students to become competent with self and peer-assessment and better focussed curriculum planning.

But how much better is what we are doing than what we had done before? There will be a trial conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation to test whether the removal of grades and a focus on subject specific skills using codes improves the quality of feedback to students, increases their metacognitive skills and speeds up the marking and feedback process.

You can get more information on the project at, and on Twitter @FLASHmarking

Sarah Cunliffe is head of English at Meols Cop High School in Southport

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