The dark side of the whiteboard - Making my mark makes me mad

14th May 2010 at 01:00
Why force children up chimneys or to work on cocoa bean plantations when you can exploit them in the comfort of your classroom by giving them red gel pens and simplified mark schemes?

I hate marking. I must be suffering from a particularly bad case of deferred ratification as I would do ANYTHING rather than tick essays. Parents' evenings, smear tests, even unclogging hair from the bathroom sink are more attractive than a pile of unmarked books.

Housework is often a popular alternative for beleaguered teachers; the bigger the pile of marking, the more seductive the mildewed grout in the shower. English is a particularly odious subject to mark because it is subjective and no matter how many guidelines the QCA produces, one teacher's 6C remains another teacher's 5A.

In a colleague's school, the key stage 3 marks were so random that you could have hung them as a Jackson Pollock. It was finally suggested that they "revisit" their results when it was discovered that all pupils were moving the requisite two sub-levels, but in the wrong direction. Staff re-tested pupils and "massaged" the data so that KS3 results and predicted targets became miraculously realigned.

It is a chilling thought that other professions may be doing the same thing. In the NHS, do malignant tumours miraculously become benign so that over-ambitious oncology targets are met? Maybe not, but experience shows that unrealistic targets produce untrustworthy data.

Fresh marking is bad enough but stale marking turns your stomach. Choice new pieces of written work have a very short shelf life and if you don't flick and tick within a fortnight they become rank.

It is more gratifying to hand out a pristine set of new books than to catch up with marking in the old ones. Experienced older pupils accept this cruel loss as an unavoidable fact of school life; Year 7s, however, still believe in the assessment fairy and their effusive chirping of "Miss, Miss, have you marked our books yet?" can drive you mad.

This year's introduction of Assessing Pupils' Progress (APP) increased marking tenfold: not a day goes by without the arrival of another must-have formative assessment tool. You can hardly find the kids' work for the jumble of hot and cold thermometers, jelly baby trees, block it reviews and traffic lights surrounding them.

I yearn for the halcyon days of KS3 Sats where a child's academic future lay in the hands of a band of semi-literate mercenaries armed only with pencils and a nodding acquaintance with the national curriculum. Sadly, the examiners lost us the battle for Sats alongside several thousand exam scripts.

For over-worked teachers, however, there is a clear advantage to APP: peer marking. Why force children up chimneys or to work on cocoa bean plantations when you can exploit them in the comfort of your classroom by giving them red gel pens and simplified mark schemes?

The result? Convincing, Ofsted-proof formative assessment without taking your eyes off eBay. My Year 8s have now peer-marked so many writing to persuade pieces that they can identify a rhetorical device at 40 paces. They are tragically more familiar with the features of a 5C than they are with the smell of their mothers.

Despite my abhorrence of marking, this year I am becoming an A-level examiner. The thought of a skiving standardising day in London is just too tempting to resist.

Anne Thrope (Ms) is a secondary teacher in the North of England.

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