Ten out of ten

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Marking, says the folklore, is what teachers have instead of a social life.Some teachers are slaves to it, returning to their piles of books and folders every evening and for long sessions at the weekend. It would not be so bad were the work always absorbing and professionally demanding. Too often, however, it is transformed into mere drudgery by the perceived need to correct endlessly repeated trivial errors. There is a dreadful feeling that the effort is out of all proportion to any educational gain.

Part of the trouble is that marking has always been done for more than one audience. One important reader, for example, is the headteacher, who will see prompt and thorough marking as a measure of teacher competence. Another is the child's parents, who will want to see every error recognised and corrected, and an appropriate comment written down. Any perceived slackness might be a cause for complaint. And somewhere among all of this there is the child, who will, the teacher hopes, be motivated, encouraged and occasionall y chastened.

These various purposes are often in conflict, and one result can be to push teachers into practices which are of doubtful educational value. They have always known, for example, that to cover a struggling child's writing in red ink may look like diligence but is probably educationally counter-productive. They suspect, too, that when children are given their marked work back, they do not, on the whole, carefully study and digest their teacher's corrections and comments. And yet despite these doubts, the drudgery continues.

What can be done to make things better? First and foremost, there has to be a whole-school marking policy which, these days, will be closely allied to the assessment policy. It will lay down the overall philosophy - and in doing so will both guide and protect those teachers who feel pressured by, for example, parental expectations. The policy in use at Crawley Ridge Junior, in Camberley, Surrey (one of the Chief Inspector's named good schools), for example, begins: "We believe that every piece of writing should be marked according to its purpose and the ability and level of each child."

This sentence alone, when you think about it, clarifies areas which for many teachers remain hazy. It implies, for example, that if you have set a piece of work for one purpose, you will not then mark it according to entirely different criteria. It suggests also that you will not do a demolition job on a less able child's work. The policy goes on to differentiate between "secretarial" marking, which is to do with the correction of structural errors, and "developmental" marking which focuses on the refinement of meaning. It is "secretarial" marking, of course - effectively proof reading - which can be time-consuming and depressing both for the teacher and the child.

The Crawley Ridge policy looks for a more positive approach by suggesting a number of techniques, most notably that of teaching children to edit their own work first. "Before a teacher addresses a child's work there should be evidence that the child has read through this work themselves, identifying possible errors." (The school teaches children to use a colour-code system, with highlighter pens, in editing their draft work. This enables the teacher to see just what editing and re-writing the pupil has done.)

Other pointers include "use selective marking, focusing on one or two aspects", "give cues rather than corrections", "use differentiated comments according to the ability of the child." The document also lays down an agreed set of symbols and abbreviations - a "common agreed marking code . . . adopted by us all".

The policy goes hand in hand with the school's practice of using "assessment sheets" for classroom tasks. These have spaces for comments by pupil, teacher and parent, and they mean, for one thing, that parents are not having to pick up all their information from their children's exercise books - they are much clearer about the way in which their children'swork is being assessed. The sheets also reinforce the idea that each classroom task must have a clear purpose which then provides the basis for assessment.

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