At the turn of the 20th century, a mysterious string of typhoid broke out amongst the affluent families of New York City. The cause was a cook called Mary Mallon, later know as "Typhoid Mary". While Mary didn't have the illness herself, she was an asymptomatic carrier and had become a silent and unwitting killer.
I think we have a silent and unwitting killer in our schools: intense marking and feedback policies. Policies that prioritise marking for evidence over feedback. Policies that demand unrealistic frequency of marking.
These policies are ultimately driving teachers out of the classroom. I know of secondary schools where leadership are demanding that English teachers mark every book, every day. How this can be seen to be useful, let alone feasible, is beyond me.
Making comparisons between marking policies and typhoid fever may seem melodramatic, but hear me out. There are clear parallels. The terrifying thing about typhoid fever is that it can spread before you know what you are dealing with, because the early symptoms can easily be mistaken for something else.
In the same way, unrealistic expectations of written feedback can spread pretty rapidly within and between schools and, before you know what’s hit you, you’ll be up past midnight triple-marking students’ books with an array of coloured pens. Senior leaders may well mistake beautifully marked books with lots of teacher writing in them as evidence of best practice, but they fail to see the truth and the cost.
Driving teachers to exhaustion
The truth is that, largely, this doesn’t represent a good use of teachers’ time. The cost is the wellbeing of the teacher and, ultimately, the progress of students. Why? Because if teachers are overworked, they’re likely to avoid marking (because it is so onerous), or will simply throw in the towel.
We know that feedback is a powerful lever for student progress, so, of course, we want to see it done well. But let’s not conflate evidence of it with feedback itself. Exercise books should tell a story of the learning that is happening in the classroom, not how many hours a teacher has spent scrawling in green, red or purple pen.
The main pressure should be on students to show how they are acting on feedback and improving their work, not on the teachers. Exercise books should not be a means by which schools are, unwittingly or otherwise, driving teachers to exhaustion, martyrdom or resignation.
When it was suggested to Mary Mallon that she was the cause of the typhoid outbreaks, she reportedly refused to believe it. She refused to believe that there was a need to wash her hands because she didn’t see herself as a risk and she refused to give up her job as a cook.
In the same way, too many school leaders fail to see the part they play in spreading the fever of written feedback. This may well be because those writing the marking and feedback policies are so far removed from regular teaching that they are able to meet the marking expectations that they are imposing on others.
It may well be feasible to triple or even quintuple mark something when you only have a couple of classes, but it’s a different beast altogether when you have a full teaching timetable. It may well be that school leaders are persisting in these expectations because they think it’s what Ofsted wants to see. If that’s the case, they may want to look to the "outstanding" grade achieved by London's Michaela Community School, where teachers do not mark books. Ever.
Evidencing written feedback is a fever. We need to treat it and fast. Let’s rewrite our policies to focus on feedback. Let’s expect teachers to read books regularly, identify common misconceptions and close the gap by reteaching what hasn’t been mastered. Let’s expect teachers to give whole-class feedback and let’s expect students to act on it in lessons. Above all, let’s trust our teachers and not obsess over written evidence when the real magic is happening in the classroom.
Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund's Girls' School in Salisbury. She tweets @TLPMsF