We must end this obsession with marking

Excessive marking does nothing to improve teaching or learning – it's driving great teachers from the profession

Tom Rogers

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Last week, I put a call on out on Twitter, and asked teachers three questions:

  • What frequency/ type of marking is expected in your school?
  • How often do you have work scrutinies and what is looked at?
  • How long do you estimate you spend marking work per week?

I also conducted a poll and asked:

How much marking are you doing a week on average? More than 2,000 people answered. 12 per cent said less than an hour, 50 per cent said two to four hours, 31 per cent said five to 10 hours and 7 per cent said more than 10 hours.

What’s clear to me, from the responses to the questions (more than 100), and the poll results, is that there are huge disparities between the marking and assessment policies in different schools.

The gap between the “haves” and “have nots” of “teacher down time” is quite alarming. The difference between a teacher doing one hour of marking a week and more than seven is surely eventual burnout, health complications and perhaps an exit from the profession.

The frequency of work scrutinies seems to be consistent, with most schools opting for at least one every half term. Whereas a few schools aren’t doing any “work scrutiny”, an equal minority are performing “quality assurance” based on a “book look” once every few weeks. These schools seem to prefer sitting down with students and their work and discussing the learning with them.

An ongoing concern I have from much of what I’ve read is that “acting on feedback” has become “teacher choreographed”. As in, “ensuring” they are doing something superficial with a coloured pen to make it look like they are making progress to the casual observer, rather than actually acting on feedback in a deep and meaningful way. Some students, for example, might not be capable of or refuse to act on the feedback given, even with guidance, but the teacher is still “held to account”.

This can lead to teachers literally sitting next to the student and telling them what to write to make things “appear” a certain way – a pointless exercise in learning terms, but one that may pass any whole school “quality assurance”. In other words, work scrutiny may add to workload and, more importantly, provide little as an effective marker for judging teacher quality or student progress.

There are major disparities between schools: the Three Bridges Primary School in west London, a school rated “good” by the inspectorate last time out, believes in something much more radical than the norm, under the leadership of headteacher Jeremy Hannay. At Three Bridges, the individual classroom teacher decides on when to mark work, there is no required frequency. There is no “work scrutiny” of any kind and furthermore, in the words of Hannay himself, the amount of time his staff spend marking books each week is “minimal”. On explaining his shift away from “quality assurance”, he said this: “When expectations and pedagogy are co-created, everyone wants the best. Work sharing and learning communities around standards and assessment are just part of the regular talk. Learning and lesson study drive improvement. Getting better is a welcomed challenge for all, by all.”

This approach is being mirrored by other headteachers, like Georgina Young, the headteacher of a school in Cambridgeshire consistently rated “good” by the inspectorate. In her school, teachers mark “at their discretion” and there aren’t any formal work scrutinies, only meetings with students where they talk about their learning, using their work as exemplars.

Of course, Ofsted themselves have famously said they aren’t looking for any frequency in marking. Hannay and Young are taking advantage of this edict but "requires improvement" schools (with poor student results) might still feel pressure to provide evidence of “interventions” they are carrying out to raise standards. Whether Ofsted’s new framework changes this remains to be seen, but there does seem to be a freedom attached to being graded good or better.

On the other end of the spectrum, one Year 5/6 lead teacher talked of “everything being marked before the next lesson: reading journals, maths, literacy, science, topics, homework and Spag. Six lessons each day. Core books scrutinised once a term. Thirty-three pupils in class. Nightmare. Hate it. Then assessments.”

This story is not uncommon. Marking is still crushing many teachers. Another said something similar, that she is expected to “fully mark every two weeks”. Scrutinies occur every half term that look at “presentation, marking for literacy, dialogue between teacher and student, evidence of homework, peer and self-assessment as well as student responses”. She says she spends at least two hours a day marking books.

This mirrors the host of messages I received personally from teachers who are spending the majority of their non-contact time in and out of school marking. There are those who would point the finger at the teacher here and ask questions about the efficiency of their practice. I will not be one of them. Sometimes accountability systems stifle any individual common sense approach.

Funnily enough, the evidence base behind the impact of written feedback is thin on the ground. In 2016, the Education Endowment Foundation found: “The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low. This is surprising and concerning bearing in mind the importance of feedback to pupils’ progress and the time in a teacher’s day taken up by marking.”

Many schools are acting on the apparent lack of impact around written feedback. Andrew Percival, deputy headteacher of Stanley Road Primary School in Oldham, has introduced a “no marking policy” into his school and seen great results so far. Perhaps “no marking” is a deceptive phrase, but in essence schools like Percival’s are looking at “feedback not marking” as a general rule, with verbal feedback, live marking, modelling and self-marking taking precedence. There is less emphasis on evidence and much more on impact. “Teachers no longer take piles of books home to mark and pupils continue to receive high-quality feedback to guide their learning. I can’t imagine ever going back to what we were doing before," he tells me.

Personally, I believe that establishing an unacceptable benchmark for average time spent marking (delivering written feedback) each week across the profession would be an excellent step forward, although where to draw that line would be difficult.

Mr N on Twitter, a Year 3 teacher and SLE, says he’s now doing 90 per cent of his books during lessons, with children responding there and then. “I might spend an hour extra during the week making sure I've not missed anything. Haven't taken a single book home to mark in over a year.”

To me, this should be the benchmark to aim for: a system where excessive marking is never one of the reasons teachers quit.

Tom Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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