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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Full marks: Teacher workload, marking policies and Shaw Primary Academy

Feedback improves learning outcomes. Marking is a form of feedback. Therefore we should maximise the amount of marking occurring in schools. This faulty logic has in part contributed to an increase in teacher workload, especially given suspicions that Ofsted will be paying close attention to student work as it moves away from a ‘preferred style of teaching’. These concerns have featured heavily in the responses to the workload challenge.

The impact of marking on workload is associated with the rise of ‘dialogic’ or ‘triple marking’, where pupils and teachers engage in an extended dialogue about their work, with the pupil responding in writing to the teacher’s comments and the teacher responding again to the pupil. At its extreme, this principle is applied to most pieces of work.

I won’t take exception with the assertion that feedback is powerful, although I have seen some people do so; I’ll take the EEF research on this topic on faith. But marking is not the only form of feedback, perhaps not even the most important. In addition, even if something is good, that doesn’t mean we should maximise it at all costs. There is a law of diminishing returns and, in education, everything comes with an opportunity cost. If they do more marking then teachers do less of something else, like lesson planning or talking to their families.

It seems reasonable to suggest that a more modest volume of marking, used within an effective wider framework of assessment and feedback, would contribute to standards without creating unsustainable workload for teachers. Just to avoid misunderstanding let me be crystal clear: teachers should mark pupils work; it is the volume and effectiveness of marking that is in question here.

There is plenty that schools can do, and I’ll outline one possible approach below but, first, we need Ofsted to fully clean up its act. In their recent myths and facts document, ‘Ofsted Inspections – clarification for schools’, the inspectorate claimed “Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders. Ofsted recognises the importance of different forms of feedback and inspectors will look at how they are used to promote learning.” However, one inspection report published in December, after the myths document was distributed, included the comment: “Teachers’ marking is often effective. Pupils much enjoy the … comments written in appropriately different colours on their literacy and numeracy work … However, the guidance that teachers write is sometimes merely a positive comment without explaining what the pupil has to do to improve, so this is not always helpful in leading to prompt improvements.” Well, yes, and..? Yet this was expressed as a reason the school was not outstanding.

Further, the outstanding grade descriptor for quality of teaching in the Ofsted handbook refers to “consistently high quality marking." Schools are understandably cautious about how this will be interpreted. We cannot bring marking into perspective while these sorts of comments are being circulated, particularly when we know that the use of work scrutiny is increasing during inspection. As usual there is a gap between the statements from the centre of Ofsted and practice on the ground. Ofsted must live up to its claims and ensure that teams do not have a preferred marking style.

Given the freedom to do what is right, there are many opportunities for schools to provide effective feedback to pupils while giving teachers a sensible work life balance. As one example, NAHT recently visited Shaw Primary Academy in Ockendon. The head teacher, Dawn Copping, had mentioned at a conference that her teachers took no marking home with them in the evening or at weekends, so we had to see how this was done.

Shaw is a large primary school in the south east of England with 46 per cent of pupils on free school meals and a high number of pupils receiving SEN support. Morale is high, as you might expect, with teachers looking cheerful and energetic. One teacher did express nostalgia for the small trolley she used to use to take the books home on a regular basis, but that didn’t last long.

Standards are high too: 95 per cent of pupils make expected progress in reading, 98 per cent in writing and 95 per cent in maths. Disadvantaged pupils actually make more progress than others, with 100 per cent achieving the expected level in all three subjects.

The basic principles of their marking policy are straightforward:

  • Teachers only provide written feedback if they have worked with that child in the lesson and they do so there and then in the lesson.
  • Each piece of work has a symbol to note whether the pupil was working with the teacher or independently.
  • Independent work is marked in around 15-30 minutes either during breaks or at the end of the day using a system of signs and symbols (with various stamps and stickers to speed things up). Teachers are expressly forbidden from writing anything, which proved hard to enforce at first.
  • Each day the teacher compiles a summary sheet which fits on a single side of A4, highlighting specific actions they will take in future lessons (such as working directly with a child, changing their group, offering some advice, providing more challenging work, etc.). If a pupil features in the summary sheet there is a specific symbol placed in their book. Children get used to this and often prompt the teacher to find out what they need to do.

There are many advantages to this approach. Obviously, all marking workload fits within the working day. Given the summary sheet, marking is directed at adapting future teaching and learning, which is the whole point of assessment. For those worried about what people might think during a ‘book flick’, the work is visibly marked and evaluated, with symbols on every page. The children felt that their efforts were recognised and rewarded (indeed, their perception was that their teachers worked extremely hard). The system of signs and symbols also worked well for children with SEN and with English as an additional language.

The senior team were honest that implementing the scheme had been challenging – old habits died hard and they’d had to adjust the approach as they went. It had taken a lot of close attention, discussion and review. The head teacher and management had given it a sustained priority. The approach was founded on the school’s teaching philosophy, and they had gone back to first principles in considering how they would develop their marking policy – what did they want it to achieve? They’d also looked at the available research. This had led them to focus on the inadequacies of what they described as ‘distance marking’ which they felt was often done more for the benefit of compliance rather than for the benefit of the children.

What works for one school can never be cut and pasted directly into another. Shaw Academy is following its own goals, serves a particular type of community and is at a particular stage of development. Surely, though, there is inspiration here that excessive marking workload is not an inevitable feature of a teacher’s life; that there is a way to do it well – perhaps even better – without doing it to excess.

We need Ofsted to be more consistent but we don’t need to wait for that. One tactic to navigating inspections is to have a clear policy and demonstrate how well that policy is implemented. This applies to marking as in other areas. If the policy states that not all work receives narrative marking, if it is clear on how other sources of feedback and assessment are used to guide teaching, if the inspectors can see how teachers and leaders use this information to improve, and if the school is smart about documenting and capturing some of that work, then I believe school leaders can have the courage of their convictions on marking.

06 February 2015