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‘Meaningful, manageable, motivating: The three paths to teachers’ liberation from their red/green/purple pens’

Yvonne Williams, a teacher and one of the 12 members of the government’s marking workload solutions group, shares reflections on her practice and hopes for solutions to the workload crisis

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Yvonne Williams, a teacher and one of the 12 members of the government’s marking workload solutions group, shares reflections on her practice and hopes for solutions to the workload crisis

The marking workload report is published. It identifies the issues, recommends the changes and delegates the actions to four different tiers. Job done?

Far from it! As Barack Obama says, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek...”

I'm a middle manager. My job is to translate intention into action. That means that the marking workload challenge has to be more than just a talking shop. I might not be able to change the educational community, but I can accentuate the three Ms:

Meaningful

My department has escaped the excesses of deep, multi-coloured marking, for which I am deeply grateful. This puts us well ahead if most classrooms are concentrating on correspondence between teacher and pupil for at least 20 minutes of a lesson. We use that time putting next steps into action on new material. Our marking scrutinies and subsequent meetings focus on the content rather than the format of our comments. We can address the most demanding aspect: providing creative, strategic next steps across the ability range.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t review work – far from it – but we do it differently. This term with Year 10 I have concentrated on sharing marked work which exemplifies good essay style and perceptive analysis. Individually, pupils use this to improve their work and then discuss the changes. I am delighted with the progress they have made with their essay writing and structures.

With all classes, the department has played up the importance of self- and peer- marking. At key stage 4, pupils absorb the standards and criteria to improve exam technique. Sometimes KS3 pupils may decide on the criteria for success, then mark and comment on drafts. I always appreciate and comment on particularly astute feedback; I occasionally fear my job may be at risk from some of them. The process is also more dynamic: a teacher’s marking, no matter how detailed, is never quite so immediate.

We don’t rely on one strategy. The workload report puts the teacher in the driving seat and the hallmark of the best practitioner is the flexibility to decide what works best and when.

Manageable

I value my staff and their time. As a manager, I look at the work-flow over the year and identify pinch-points. Our spring term can be sheer marking hell because of mocks taking place whilst other classes are still in progress. Ideally, there would be a two-week marking amnesty which would allow us to concentrate on the mocks. (English departments mark language and literature papers for each pupil at KS4, so we really feel the pain.)

But it is also a good time to concentrate on KS3 speaking and listening. By paying particular attention to this neglected attainment strand at this juncture, we assess skills in research, structure and presentation in situ and give immediate motivating response. Fighting fire with fire is always a satisfying strategy. Using tick-box sheets and involving the whole class in the feedback makes it more involving for all. Our assessment is ongoing, relevant and manageable. No one is neglected.

Prior to school examination week it is important to allocate marking fairly to take into account the demands that report writing will make on staff shared across departments. No one should be overburdened, especially if their KS3 timetable is heavy.

What still needs to be worked on is how to streamline routine marking especially when parents’ evenings loom.

Motivating

What is most motivating for teachers and pupils alike is seeing genuine progress. This does not necessarily mean higher grades. There is nothing more demotivating for teachers than seeing a pupil turn the page over, take a look at the grade and then look anywhere but at the comments, advice and suggestions that have been so painstakingly written in the dark hours. We provide both comments and grades, but discussion with my opposite numbers across the trust (GDST) indicates that the research is right: comments are far more likely to bring about improvement. Definitely a win-win strategy if we save time on grading and our pupils read our comments – and act on them.

And for the future?

We could all gain much from the report from the Commission on Assessment without Levels. My department has never used Assessing Pupils' Progress and uses more holistic judgements. I can’t help feeling that some schools have missed a trick if they have not made the most of the opportunity to streamline assessment to make it more relevant and meaningful. 

As the coursework cycle is completed, I realise much more needs to be done to alleviate the marking and administration burden. I am more than happy to engage with awarding organisations to reduce the squandering of teachers’ time in this annual ritual.

I have been immensely privileged to work with inspiring people on the marking workload challenge. I would love to find a way of widening this circle to share excellent practice and liberate teachers from their red/green/purple pens to progress this agenda.

Yvonne Williams is head of English at Portsmouth High School for Girls

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