Here are some simple statements about the current state of teacher workload:
* Most teachers work too many hours – 54 per week, on average, according to a recent DfE workload survey.
* A lot of these hours come in the form of unpaid overtime, usually spent marking books at home.
* The vast majority of teachers see workload as a “fairly serious problem”.
These facts are incontrovertible. So why do we, as school leaders, as classroom teachers, as parents of pupils taught by worn-out teachers, allow this to keep happening?
Ofsted deserves its allocation of finger-pointing in the workload blame game. Yet, since it began myth-busting in 2016, it has done much to counter the problem.
“Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback” it has stated.
This information is in the public domain, so why it being routinely ignored?
Rogue Ofsted inspectors are out there who, despite the messages from high command, still expect to see a certain type or frequency of marking.
If true, school leaders need to hold firm and quote back the mythbuster pronouncements if challenged about their practice.
Senior leaders are using Ofsted as cover for what they want their staff to do, even if it isn’t required by the inspectorate.
If theory B is based in fact, those leaders must be crazy. What sensible headteacher would implement policies that push teachers to the brink, particularly as Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman has said reducing teacher workload is now a “top priority”?
So, you’re a senior or middle leader. You don’t, funnily enough, want your staff to suffer. You’d quite like them to have a life outside of your institution. You’d like to slash the volume of marking being done by your teachers, but you aren’t quite ready to abandon written feedback, because of parental expectations or lurking fears about what Ofsted really want.
What do you do? There is an answer: you need to encourage your colleagues to start live marking.
What is live marking?
Live marking involves giving pupils immediate written feedback on their work during lessons. Positives – which can be given verbally – should be cut out, focussing instead on succinct targets and diagnostic prompts, such as “Such as?”. Amendments are then to be made in real time, or during the next lesson.
Some teachers like to circulate and annotate as pupils work, others prefer to summon pupils to their desk. The key element, noted by Hattie and Timperley (2007), is cues being given, with corrective work following.
Why bother writing it down?
* Pupils sometimes have a habit of “forgetting” stuff. Your scrawl keeps them focused on the area for improvement.
* It helps you remember where they got up to, which is handy for checking progress.
*You can spot trends, such as pupils who neglect to show their working out.
* You can maintain a quiet atmosphere when pupils are working in silence.
* It shows that feedback is being given and, crucially, acted upon.
What are the challenges?
It’s hard to live mark in a disorderly class. But then it’s also hard to ask questions or model work in a disruptive environment. In which case, support needs to be given so that behaviour changes, rather than seeing this as a marking and feedback issue.
Teachers worry about being able to get around all the pupils in a lesson. This isn’t necessary, unless your school has ridiculous expectations. If they manage only six to eight pupils, teachers should cover the class every four lessons or so, which is reasonable.
Initially, pupils are reluctant to hand over work mid-task. In my experience, they soon switch from “it’s not finished” to “could you please look at this?” instead.
Some schools waste time by getting pupils to write their improvements in a different coloured pen. This is unnecessary and gets in the way of immediate improvements.
What are the benefits?
No more marking at home – apart from formal assessments, but that’s a big leap from scribbling away in front of EastEnders.
Additionally, you can target certain pupils first: the early finishers or reluctant writers who need most prompting. Over time, they get the message and start self-regulating.
Should we insist that all teachers live mark?
No. As I said, highly prescriptive marking policies are more likely to get you into bother with inspectors these days.
Your job is to sell the advantages of live marking – family time, a social life, improved pupil outcomes – to your colleagues. Encourage them to give it a go. Give them the chance to see others put it into action. Explain it to parents.
If you’re one of the schools that still insist your staff give detailed written feedback, now is the time to go “live”. The alternative is “dead” marking: teachers who are dead-eyed, dead tired and dead sick of teaching.
Mark Roberts is an assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the South West of England