A reflection for the SSAT Leadership Legacy Project 2019-20, by Dafydd Francis, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow.
Before I started teaching, I understood that ‘marking’ was part of a teacher’s role. I remember, when I was at school, teachers taking books in every so often, ticking or crossing answers, grading assignments, giving praise stickers, and receiving feedback, ranging from a ‘good effort’ or ‘well done’ to a comment explaining what I needed to do to improve. What I had not expected were the types of marking policies that some schools have previously used and continue to use.
‘For Years 7 to 9, I would expect to see one in-depth, marked piece of work with clear developmental feedback and What Went Well (WWW) and Even Better If (EBI) at least every 4 lessons’ is one example of what you may find in a whole-school marking policy. Why every 4? Why not 5? And for that matter, why not 3? Why is it the same for all subjects? Is this in line with the scheme of learning? A core subject teacher, then, may have to take every set of their books home to mark every week, or every other week? These are the questions that should be asked when designing such policies.
Another policy is to encourage teacher-student written dialogue by the production of WWW/EBI comments from staff, in line with a timescale like the above. This may then be followed by a question that students have to answer in a highlighted box in their workbooks. When I first joined the profession, I remember being given feedback such as ‘remember to use the school policy of WWW/EBI and yellow box for students to complete learning questions’ and that I needed to ‘develop the use of the yellow box policy in marking to encourage dialogue in workbooks’. I was also told I should ‘draw a yellow box to the appropriate size to allow students to complete learning questions’.
There is an undoubted need for teachers to give students feedback
At this stage, I would like to make it clear that there is an undoubted need for teachers to give students feedback, written or otherwise, and I completely support the role of feedback and dialogue as part of teaching and learning. However, as explained in the 2016 Education Endowment Foundation Marking Review, this type of dialogic and triple marking clearly has ‘the potential to generate large quantities of additional workload’. They concluded that ‘while there does appear to be some promise underpinning the idea of creating a dialogue, further evaluation is necessary both to test this promise and to determine whether any resultant benefits are large enough to justify the time required’. This last section is crucial – are some marking policies producing enough of an impact to justify the considerable amount of time and wider-reaching consequences that staff must invest in them?
I am fortunate that at my current school, we moved away from such policies some years ago and, indeed, departments are able to write their own marking policies in line with the needs of their specific subject areas. In 2018, I was appointed Head of Department, and one of the first actions I took was to rewrite our marking policy. Before I continue, I would like to emphasise that staff wellbeing and the retention of passionate teachers with excellent subject knowledge and a secure understanding of pedagogy have always been a key priority for me.
Workload is one of the most frequently cited reasons for teachers wanting to leave
We are all aware of the challenges faced in the education sector when it comes to staff recruitment and retention. The number of full-time teacher vacancies and temporarily filled posts have both risen since 2011. It is also recognised that overall pupil numbers are expected to continue rising by approximately 15% in secondary school by 2024. The five-year retention rate for teachers remains at only around two thirds. In addition, it has been repeatedly acknowledged that workload is one of the most frequently cited reasons for teachers wanting to leave the profession. As a result, one of the main reasons I feel so strongly about staff wellbeing and retention is the fact that the problem of retention is most acute in schools serving areas of disadvantage, making efforts to achieve deep social justice more difficult from the outset.
Returning to marking policies, I would like to recognise Ofsted’s position. In 2016, they clarified their expectations, which some would argue had previously influenced schools’ arbitrary and workload-heavy marking policies. They clearly state that they do not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking in pupils’ books and that these are for individual schools to decide. The key here is that marking and feedback should be consistent with a school’s policy, catering for different subjects and different age groups in different ways. There is no requirement to record oral feedback and whilst marking should help to motivate pupils to make progress, this does not always mean writing in-depth comments. Marking policies, they advised, should be proportionate and take into account the cost and time-effectiveness of marking in relation to the overall workload of teachers. Proportionate in relation to the overall workload of teachers. Under certain marking policies, how many hours are staff spending taking sets of books home and marking them in line with expectations? Is this the best use of teachers’ time? What impact is this having? In my experience, any impact is not proportionate to the time staff are investing, and I feel the hours could be better spent focusing on other areas of teaching and learning.
Example of a reviewed MFL marking policy with staff workload and wellbeing in mind
With the above in mind, I initially scrapped any arbitrary frequency for marking of pupils’ workbooks like the type seen in some schools (i.e. every nth lesson). This immediately reduced pressure and workload for staff. Over the past year, I have refined our feedback policy (moving away from the title ‘marking policy’ to acknowledge all the other feedback students receive that is perhaps not always credited as part of marking policies). There is now much more of an onus on students to complete self- and peer-assessment, not only supporting staff with workload but also helping students to understand gaps in their own learning. There is also a wider focus on whole-class feedback once students have either self- or peer-assessed their writings. This has multiple benefits. It allows students to become better acquainted with success criteria as they are guided in terms of the kind of language required for top-band marks when they assess their WWW/EBI; it takes less time for staff than comments in individual workbooks; it gives staff an overview of common misconceptions and any areas that may need revisiting that are specific to that group; and staff are able to praise particularly impressive language.
Increasing and standardising work students complete
As well as the benefits of whole-class feedback outlined above, it frees up staff time to focus on other areas of teaching and learning in line with an individual department’s priorities. Over the past year, this has allowed us to spend more time together as a faculty, researching strategies to implement in day-to-day lessons to work towards the areas for development that we have identified. It has given staff time to overhaul our homework policy across all year groups, increasing and standardising the work students complete independently. The new marking policy means staff have time to invest in creating model answers as part of the feedback process, giving students a clear indication of the success criteria required for top marks. There is more emphasis on formative assessment in the classroom on a daily basis and live, verbal feedback, so that students receive instant responses that address misconceptions.
Over time, a policy like the one outlined above can free up hours and hours of staff time. These hours can instead be invested in personalised CPD sessions, creating high-quality teaching resources, reviewing schemes of learning, redesigning curricula, better analysing data, interventions and contacting parents/guardians. These arguably have a wider impact on teaching and learning, student progress and outcomes. School leaders taking the time to review marking policies could, in the long term, improve staff morale, decrease workload and fatigue, create a better work-life balance and reduce staff absence.
In my experience, teachers are willing to work extremely hard when what they are asked to do can and does make a difference to students’ lives, for that is the reason the majority enter this profession. We are in a position in which ‘more than one in ten teachers from the most disadvantaged secondary schools leave to teach in other schools: about twice the proportion who make the same move from the least disadvantaged school’. My question, then, is whether arbitrary written marking policies that negatively impact staff workload, wellbeing and retention are the best way of positively impacting our students’ lives in our battle for deep, social justice.