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When a mark is more of a blemish

I marked some history exercise books the other day. What a shambles. The work was OK but my marking was mystifying, even to me. Why was I giving a mark when experts tell us it only distracts pupils from reading the more useful comment? And why was I writing a comment when previous comments had been ignored and the faults repeated? And did "AA" mean work learned or work recorded? What was I doing?

I never have these problems marking GCSE work. External exams have standard marking conventions which common sense accepts, if not agrees with.

Tinkering with GCSE marking schemes just spreads confusion among candidates, which does nothing for their final grades.

So why is it different at key stage 3? Don't we have a marking policy? Of course we do. My problem is convincing myself that it is appropriate to what I would like pupils to achieve. I'm not alone. This is why we have had many policies over several years, all produced by staff committees.

Marking policies are something that heads can safely leave to staff. They know that teachers given responsibility for any aspect of school planning will be so honoured to have a say that they will impose on themselves regulations and conditions that few heads would dare propose.

Our last school marking policy collapsed within a few months. What seemed to be a good idea to a committee of young and enthusiastic teacherplanners proved burdensome in the real classroom world. New marking policies tend to reduce to the minimum that which will both satisfy inspectors' demands for consistency, and calm inquisitive parents. Anything more leads to so many difficulties that it is effectively disregarded. But these policies still show prominently in the school's policy handbook and follow a style that is increasingly inappropriate for today's world.

Rows of marks in a mark book are no longer appropriate to judge the range of activities that students regularly experience in normal teaching, especially at key stage 3 (paradoxically, the older the student in school the more external exams compress the range of activities available). How can a marking policy take account of such diverse tasks as a three-week project on slavery, a PowerPoint presentation, a piece of extended writing, and a wall display, without being either so vague as to be useless or so encompassing as to be incomprehensible? And that in just one subject.

Marking policies in most schools have to change for another reason. The fashionable (and justified) move towards frank and full revelation of a child's IQ through cognitive ability tests blows the myth that the only barrier between the work of an average child and that of a genius is effort.

Children don't take notice of marking because most comments are repetitive and address those aspects of their work that they are least able to correct. Those parts they can improve need detailed explanation so cannot be described as part of a conventional marking exercise. From week to week, most children don't improve that much, so why mark that much?

A newcomer to my school surprised our committee by repeating what her college lecturer used to say: "Teachers spend 98 per cent of their non-contact time marking to achieve 2 per cent improvement in learning."

That's not cost-efficient. It's got to change, even if one of the first casualties is the school's marking policy.

Peter Cotterill teaches in a south Yorkshire comprehensive

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