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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.

Marking: The worst part of teachers’ workload?

If we're talking about teacher workload, I have always felt that marking deserves some attention. We expect teachers to work hard, to fill the day and then some. But we should also expect them to have a life, including family time. Shattered, dispirited teachers will do nothing for standards. Good marking is, of course, vital - this is not an argument against marking - but it also seems to me that marking is the form of work that intrudes most regularly on personal time.

A number of forces have conspired to make marking an issue at the moment: powerful evidence suggests that feedback to students is effective for raising standards; schools have been left to invent new models of assessment following the end of levels; and Ofsted has shifted its focus to work scrutiny*. 

None of these are bad things. In fact, they're rather good in themselves. But we need to manage the consequences very carefully. 

Let's unpick them a little. Feedback is powerful and marking is a form of feedback. However, it is only one form of feedback. Often it is the ad hoc verbal feedback made in the lesson that can have the most impact. The trouble is that there is rarely a permanent record of this. Enter Ofsted. If we are expecting Ofsted to scrutinise workbooks, and in the absence of reliable comparable data on progress, the temptation is to ensure books are covered in red ink to document the effort. 

This is understandable. Ofsted HQ may say they have no particular expectations of marking but you never know what the individual inspector will be looking for. Given the high stakes nature of inspection, the temptation is to over-compensate.

In the interests of sustainable workloads and effective assessment we must resist this. Marking and assessment should be driven by good teaching not by compliance. I agree with Mary Bousted (general secretary of ATL) when she says "As a profession, led by school leaders, we have to get beyond dancing to Ofsted's tune". 

So how do we do this? Greater clarity from Ofsted is welcome but the answer lies in the profession's hands. Firstly, mark as your collective professional judgement suggests is appropriate and necessary to offer valuable feedback and recognition to pupils. After this, in terms of external accountability, be confident in letting pupil work speak for itself - the progress is evident on the page, not in the marking. This should be what inspectors are looking for. Lastly, build a sustainable marking policy - be clear on the volume and occasions on which marking is expected, how it is quality assured, what role it plays within the bigger picture. If your policy is clear and is consistently followed, inspectors will usually respect that rather than second guessing the policy itself. Make sure that the policy also references the full range of feedback methods, including peer review. 

There are schools which have restricted the volume of 'distance marking', reduced teacher workload and achieved outstanding results. The trick lies in policies designed for impact rather than compliance, plus the confidence to defend them. If we want to reduce the negative impact of Ofsted, part of the answer lies in not reacting to it so violently. Easy to say, I know, but when the frameworks and criteria change so regularly anyway, all you are left with for a compass are your values as a leader. 

* The Ofsted shift towards work scrutiny has other ramifications. It comes partly from the troubled attempt to move away from preferred styles of teaching (and perhaps also as a reaction to the end of levels). If you have no preference for teaching approaches, then there is little point in observing teaching. If you are not observing teaching then you must be observing learning (assuming there is any point to your presence at all). The trouble with learning is that quite a lot of it is invisible: it takes place in the minds of the students. In order to observe learning, therefore, you may have to actively engage with the student and their work. Passive observation is replaced by what is, in effect, a form of assessment. This is more intrusive (and blows out of the water the notion of inspection catching the school or class in its natural state) but is probably quite a healthy development. It will have reverberations for in-school practice too. Is the era of passive observation coming to an end? What practices could and should replace it?

17 November 2014

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