Like many other schools around the country, we at Barr Beacon School found marking in a way that felt thorough and yet was not overly time consuming to be a significant challenge.
A year ago, we reduced our marking policy to this:
It is essential that pupils work as hard as their teachers. For this to happen, teachers need to ensure their pupils know the right answers to these two questions:
- What am I doing well in this subject?
- What do I need to do to improve my work in this subject?
If pupils can answer these questions accurately, in subject specific detail, they are receiving effective feedback.
These two questions have allowed us to have our cake and eat it. On the one hand, they allow our teachers to mark using the methods that best suit them and their pupils. At the same time, they ensure that all pupils are receiving a consistently high quality of feedback.
But to tell this story properly, we have to back up a bit…
March 2016 – Quality over consistency
We were fortunate to have one of our own teachers on the Teacher Workload Review Group. Reading the Review Group’s final report, ‘Eliminating unnecessary teacher workload around marking’, was one of the first steps we took in reashaping our approach to marking.
In particular, one finding stood out to us:
There is no single reason behind excessive workload. The accountability system must encourage good practice rather than stimulate fads. School leaders must have the confidence to reject decisions that increase burdens for their staff for little dividend. Teachers themselves must be more active in using evidence to determine what works in the classroom. Two things are clear. Nobody intentionally sets out to create unnecessary workload.
One of the reasons why ‘excessive’ marking is so common is because of a desire to maintain consistency. But if we’re honest, when we look for consistency in marking do we just check to see everyone is doing the same thing?
Surely it’s quality where we want consistency, not the method used?
If we over rely on one-to-one written marking, this rapidly becomes unmanageable for teachers and not very meaningful for pupils.
As school leaders, we need to actively encourage teachers to give feedback in a variety of ways. And some teachers, perhaps fearful of ‘getting it wrong’, need more encouragement than others.
Galvanised by the Workload Review Group’s report we talked with teachers about the barriers they were facing and identified the solutions we needed to put in place for September 2016:
Making it Meaningful
Barrier: Teachers said being asked to mark at set times could be an issue. For example, if they were marking Year 10 work once every two weeks (as dictated by the old policy) these weren’t always the right times for the unit of work. Sometimes it was more appropriate to mark earlier or later in the scheme.
Solution: Although work would still to be marked diagnostically (at least twice a half term was right according to our staff), teachers would be allowed to choose precisely when this would be. Marking would henceforth be less frequent but more meaningful.
Barrier: Some subjects were not using the best marking methods for that subject. Marking should look very different in some subjects compared with others.
Solution: Departments decided what marking should look like in their areas. They collated a bank of effective practice to show new staff and reinforce expectations for existing teachers. Importantly, it was not to be considered ‘the finished product’: they would keep adding to it with examples of approaches which they have found to work best, replacing things which hadn’t worked as well.
Making it Manageable
Barrier: Teachers were often ‘deep-marking’ everything, rather than selecting key pieces for diagnostic feedback.
Solution: Teachers would more carefully choose what they need to mark. Departments identified assessment opportunities which formed a more general summary of work. For example, our science teachers decided they would set 6 mark questions, drawing together lots of knowledge rather than smaller questions which test only aspects of topics. Synoptic assessment was the way forward for many subjects.
Barrier: Acknowledging work (ticking and flicking) was wasting everyone’s time. Some people said they did it because parents expected it.
Solution: A blanket ban. We don’t have time. If teachers are concerned that pupils aren’t taking notes proficiently enough, they can check pupils’ note-taking abilities through other means (such as a note-checking pro forma stuck in their books). We crafted a letter for parents informing them about how the marking would look different in their children’s books this year – definitely no ticking and flicking.
(This could also appear under ‘meaningful’ – what does a tick mean to a pupil anyway?!)
Making it Motivating
Barrier: Some pupils (especially the more able) were saying that they just wanted to know how to improve. They knew they were working hard and didn’t need the written affirmation. They said they didn’t even read it.
Solution: Amp up the verbal praise even more (already a big positive in our classrooms) and use writing to record what they need to do to improve (only in situations where pupils can’t be guided to work it out for themselves of course).
This definition made its way into the first whole staff CPD of the academic year. By far the most important element of the session was a DOs and DON’Ts chart we designed to reassure staff that they could do things differently.
We were pleased to see that our chart had helped to stimulate ideas for the Workload Poster produced collaboratively by the Department for Education, Ofsted and the teacher Unions.
But we all know that, no matter how well-planned it might be, the impact of a CPD session can be limited if it’s not followed up.
Did the inefficient practice disappear overnight? Of course not. Everyone was given space and time to try new things.
It was vital that teachers had a whole term to work out what was best for them and their pupils, with gentle encouragement and advice from their middle leaders, senior leaders and peers.
There were the early adopters of course. By the end of the month I was inundated with e-mails like these:
David J I have found my marking time has decreased significantly since you showed the code system in CPD, and then embedding the feedback sessions into lessons decreases it even further as pupils will be able to self-assess where they need to improve in order to figure out which task they need to complete!
David - Just wanted to tell you that I just marked my Year 12s’ essays and it took me half the time it did last year. 22 essays in under 2 hours. YESSSSSSSS!!!
I have my Sunday back and my Year 10 are producing better writing than they did last year. I’ll never tick and flick again (promise).
By this point, a significant majority of teachers were telling me they were spending half the time marking than they were before. Some even said the new approach had cut their marking time by two thirds, with no detrimental impact on their pupils.
In fact, pupils were receiving feedback much more quickly and benefitting as a result.
Spring term 2017
It’s always important to see past your own pro-innovation bias, so when we returned after the Christmas break I decided to set any visitors to our school a challenge: find a pupil who doesn’t know what they are doing well and what they need to do to improve.
I hoped their fresh eyes would show up any flaws in the new approach to giving feedback. But every single visitor was amazed at how articulate our pupils were about their progress.
Like with anything you manage to change in schools, it’s easy to take the new reality for granted and forget what things were like before. And I was reminded of ‘the old way’ only last week when I observed a new colleague teaching. The lesson was great but there was a problem with the marking…there was far too much of it. Every page was covered in lashings of red pen.
She said that in her previous school she had been told that every page needed to have some red on it. That everything the pupils did, even if it was just notes, needed to be marked in full.
Although she had found our induction programme for new staff useful, she had been fearful to change the way she marked so she had fallen back on what she had been doing for years at her old school.
From the back of my diary I retrieved from my (now dog-eared) copy of the marking policy.
As I went through it with her, I saw something I had always considered to be just a figure of speech: the weight lifting from someone’s shoulders.
She recently showed me her Year 9 books which included great feedback using the school’s coding system. ‘It’s taken me half the time. And the kids loved it.’
She’s a professional who knows what’s best for her pupils. But sometimes a little bit of encouragement is all it takes.
To read the Workload Review Group's report into 'Reducing teacher workload around marking', visit https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/reducing-teacher-workload-marking-policy-review-group-report