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1,700 heads 'let down' by poor marking

Schools and pupils 'let down' by poor marking, claim school leaders, as some 1,700 heads register concern

image of survey with mouse - ticked for poor

Thousands of pupils and their families may have been affected by inaccurate SATs marking this year, according to a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers.


In a survey of a randomly-selected sample group of NAHT members1, 1,689 schools, a staggering 76 per cent of respondents, reported problems with the quality of this year’s SATs marks - particularly in the writing test.


Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the NAHT, said the inconsistent marking could have huge implications for data given to parents and secondary schools on pupils' progress and attainment and on the rankings given to schools in league tables.


Mr Hobby said: “We have been overwhelmed by the response to our inquiry and by the strength of feeling expressed by head teachers. There is a real sense that the efforts of their teachers and pupils have not been matched by the quality of the system.


“There are too many tests these days and this makes thorough quality assurance a challenge: mistakes in marking and consistency will happen. Tests are not the objective benchmark they are sometimes made out to be - there are other ways of measuring how well pupils achieve, methods which take account of creativity and capture the breadth of what children need to learn in schools these days.


"The government is driving to ever greater transparency on the publication of data on schools. This year's marking problems show once again that the data may be based on shaky foundations: recording what is easy to measure rather than what matters, and doing so on a very narrow snapshot. We encourage parents to learn about schools in better ways: visit them, talk to other parents and pupils, talk to the teachers. A single statistic in the tables, built on marking like this, tells you very little indeed."



Among the comments from emails sent to the NAHT are:

  • Just to let you know that I am in the process of sending all of the writing papers back. One paper has wine spilled on it. My KS2 staff are very distressed about the quality of marking. I am going to send the papers back and then issue a formal complaint. Northamptonshire head teacher


  • Would any sane person like to explain to me how my cohort of Y6 pupils can achieve 100 per cent at L4+ in Maths and 75 per cent at L5 in both Maths and Reading, and then go on to achieve only 12 per cent at L5 Writing a day later? We now have three sets of 59 scripts to scrutinise (i.e. all three writing papers) with a review deadline of 15 July, at this hectic time of year and to add insult to injury, will have to pay for the privilege of requesting a re-mark. Ridiculous!  Derbyshire head teacher


  • Please explain how a pupil who has written excellent short and long pieces, passed an 11+ exam, has consistently performed at level 5 and above in writing this year and has written an excellent piece can be allocated the same marks (approx L 2a/3) as a pupil with significant special educational needs who has produced a far inferior piece of writing (although good for him)? Greenwich head teacher


  • I have found a massive discrepancy between our writing scores and all other scores (ie 53 per cent level 5 in Maths and Reading, and three per cent level 5 in Writing).  I am now faced with marking 60 scripts (90 if we check the reading papers too) over the next couple of days and filling in paperwork for individual reviews, as we can no longer send a whole class set back for re-marking.  We have had this problem over the last two years as well but I put it down to bad luck in having poor markers in those years. This year however is beyond a joke, and the pressure on senior leaders at this very busy time in schools is intolerable. Buckinghamshire head teacher


  • Our writing SATs are wildly inaccurately marked and very inconsistent.  Marking bears little relation to previous teacher assessment, though some do match and we agree with the judgements. The inconsistency worries us most.  We have sampled 10 out of 37 and there were serious errors in seven judgements.  We did a blind marking exercise with the SMT – all our judgements concurred, but differed from the SATs marker. Cambridgeshire head teacher


  • Having been distraught at the writing scores awarded to our pupils yesterday (Level 5 - eight per cent in comparison with 46 per cent last year) we rapidly concluded that something strange was going on!  We are checking our 102 Y6 papers later. Something stinks me thinks. We have had lots of excellent writers awarded levels that do not reflect their ability and some solidly-achieving children awarded level 3s. Scandalous! Lincolnshire head teacher


  • What concerns me even more is the number of crossings out and changing of marks by the marker – which would seem to indicate they aren't sure of the criteria. I do not feel confident that all of our scripts have been correctly marked and await advice on how to proceed. Somerset head teacher


  • Despite getting 96 per cent L4 and above in my school I am returning nine of the writing papers for checking. Normally I may return one or usually none. My Senco is an expert at marking scripts and has 35 years teaching experience. He is flabbergasted. Never known a year like this. I think colleagues are worried that if they complain they will not get the marks upgraded and properly assessed. Hackney head teacher

Sample complaints picked up at random from 1,411 comments made in response to the NAHT survey:

1. The quality of the marking of the writing papers is dreadful. Many of our papers have been under-marked, some by up to 11 marks.  We are having to go through every paper and re-mark and then ask for a review. Our LA literacy advisor has moderated the papers and confirmed our judgements. It is not just the borderline children who are affected.  The difference between a 4c and a 4a will affect our points progress which in turn will impact on any OFSTED judgements. This will also have an effect on the children, reducing their confidence just as they go to secondary school. The whole thing is disgraceful.


2. Inconsistent marking which is totally out of line with our moderated and strongly-evidenced teacher assessments.


3. The upper ability children have been marked down. We normally get circa 25 per cent L 5's. This year we have two per cent. Our total L5's in English is now five per cent. I'm not sure if this is a quality assurance issue or a political agenda.


4. The marking of the writing papers was erratic in the extreme. A vast number of papers have been under-marked according to the mark scheme, while a few have been over-marked.


5. It appears that goal posts have moved and Teacher Assessments made against APP guidelines have not been matched by SATs marking. Correct spellings are been marked wrong!


6. It is incomprehensible to us how five pupils, clearly working at Level five all year and demonstrating their skills well in the test, have been marked so harshly on the longer writing task. The application of the mark scheme seems erratic at best and bizarre in some places. The pupils are already disadvantaged by being given two non-fiction tasks, which do not allow them to show breadth of skill or recognise that many children are able to showcase their abilities much more successfully in a fiction setting.


7. The chair of governors has instructed me to return all English scripts and intends to write to QCDA and Mr Gove with a claim for the costs of two supply teachers that I employed yesterday so that the Year 6 teachers could scrutinise the scripts and make judgements about the accuracy of marking.


8. Can’t a marker use a thesaurus like children?  Do markers know about the use of ellipses and higher-level punctuation apart from commas & speech marks? My children don’t get awarded higher level marks for using these types of punctuation! Is that because the marker doesn’t know how to use them?


9. People who are paid to undertake a serious job of marking papers should be able to add up!  They should also be able to assess at least as well as the staff in my school and I suspect most primary schools.


10. The appalling marking of our writing tests is going to cause us great difficulty as a school already with notice to improve. On our predictions and all previous formal assessment of the pupils it looks as though they have all been marked down by a level.


11. The quality of this year's marking was the worst ever. Ironically, it resulted in our highest ever results. There was huge inconsistency between the way different children's writing was judged and in levels awarded. Many have been graded far higher than they should have been whilst others have been unfairly downgraded. If it didn't all matter so much we would dismiss the marking as some sort of bad joke. We will write to parents to tell them to take no notice and concentrate on teacher assessments.


12. The marking of writing is idiosyncratic. There does not appear to be year to year consistency and predicting the outcome is always difficult. Poor marking of writing may or may not alter the overall mark for English. Unless it directly alters a child's English mark so there is no real appeal for a number of children. However, harsh marking can ruin the confidence of a child, their family and their teachers.


13. Simple adding up is incorrect on some of our papers - correct marks would give a level 5!  One paper has been lost altogether!


14. This is becoming silly. Our marks are again far away from what we predicted. This cannot go on.

The survey was sent to just over 9,000 randomly-selected head teachers who are members of the NAHT on July 6 2011. The survey closed at 5pm on 15 July 2011.


Along with the opportunity for further comment, the questions included:


1. Have you experienced any problems with the marking of this year’s SATs?

2. How significant are the problems?

3. Which papers are affected?