The Mighty Behemoth that is Marking!

There’s been a fair bit in the Twitterspehere recently on the subject of marking from primary colleagues who are required to mark 90 books a day to @thosethatcan rightly challenging unacceptable marking. Of course, now that The Forces of Darkness – well, Ofsted if you will – are spending more time scrutinising books, marking has become the new panic button. And so, it seems, we have policies explicit or inferred that require gargantuan amounts of marking so that Ofsted can see we are conscientious in our obligations.

Well, let’s step back a moment and consider. What is this marking – or responding to pupils’ work- for? It’s for the teacher to consider a variety of things: how much work has been done, whether tasks are finished or not, how well they have learnt/understood the objective, how much progress has been made, where there are mistakes and/or misunderstandings. For the pupil, it lets them know about all those things but it also shows that miss or sir values and respects their work. Ditto parents when they see the exercise books – very rarely in secondary probably more in primary.

All of those things are valuable, indeed vital, as without them we cannot effectively plan for progression. But this does not mean we have to concern ourselves in depth with every written page. Nor does it mean that only things written down show the teacher the way forward. If that were so then how would subjects like drama and PE go on?

I am mentoring a young colleague in her fourth year of teaching through a difficult patch and I recently colour coded her timetable. It was a sobering sight. There is a barely a breathing space for her among the six groups she teaches. With an optimistic average of 25 pupils per group that means 150 pupils taught every week. That’s 6 lots of classwork books, 6 lots of homework books and 6 lots of termly assessments to be marked. Not to mention the following up on poor, unsatisfactory or missing work or homework. And that’s after the planning and resourcing for 6 groups. She is not alone or unique.

How can teachers then manage this marking load? I’m pretty much of the view that they can’t. I have a theory that a lot of substandard work – especially homework – is accepted because to do otherwise is impossible – re-do the work = re-do the marking! It has the feeling of a hamster in a wheel.Now we have to demonstrate that pupils are responding to the teacher marking…and then the teacher has to respond. Eek! how do we get off that wheel?

I am the lucky SLT person charged with all matters assessment and it fell to me to develop our marking policy, which I did with our Assessment Focus Group (Assfoc). My modus operandi in these matters is to identify what crap I can get rid of and then look at how I can make the teachers’ workload reasonable and manageable. Thus, it is explicit in the policy that teachers are not expected to mark everything. Rather, they are asked to ensure Quality Written Feedback (QWF) on designated pieces of work proportionate to their subject’s timetable share. How this is done is a matter for the Head of Faculty or subject but in a subject like English that will mean 2 pieces a half term and in a subject like RE that will mean one per term. Everything else should be glanced at and acknowledged with initials. Literacy marking has three codes – spelling, punctuation, capital letters – or teachers can use a highlighter as I do. Thus marking can be planned and the workload spread.

It may not be perfect but I think it goes some way towards lifting a considerable burden from teachers and prevents marking from becoming a tyranny which threatens to overwhelm them. And I reckon Ofsted can’t argue with it but if they do, I’m ready.