Developmental marking – friend or foe?

Developmental marking – friend or foe?

Even some 16 years on from the ‘marking episode’ at my school, I can recall many of the details and believe that after all the changes in schools’ approach to marking, revisions haven’t always shown the dramatic impact we were anticipating and I wonder why might this be? To put this into some kind of context, it is imperative I recount a particular experience.

It was the early noughties and I had recently been appointed as deputy head of one of the largest primary schools in the West Midlands. Full of enthusiasm and exuberance, I was keen to lead on one of my many areas of responsibility – namely assessment. Like most schools, we were on a journey, continually looking to improve pupil outcomes, achieve national standards, exceed progress expectations and be the best we could be, despite many challenging socio-economic circumstances. With the full backing of an inspirational head, my first quest was to explore the status and quality of marking across the school, identifying the usual strengths and areas for development (euphemistically weaknesses).  This took a great deal of time and energy, including a series of staff meetings where we scrutinised pupils’ work, debated the merits of different codes for different phases, argued whether detailed written feedback was appropriate for EYFS and KS1 pupils due to early reading capability etc, and embarked upon a circuitous cycle of debate regarding the time teachers spent on marking, in particular KS1 vs KS2 (years 5 and 6 predominantly).

I won’t burden you with the finer details, but suffice it to say, a new policy was duly penned, with the vast majority of staff ‘happy’ to implement  it in the new school term, so precisely marking transition from the old to the ‘new, shiny and improved’ one.

In order to make this demarcation even more explicit we decided to take the momentous decision to change from using red (note only one colour here) to green, and this small, innocuous decree led to  what can only be described as a huge philosophical debate – one we were not anticipating.

Let it be made clear, staff were fine with the changes, so were pupils and parents, but as the changes dissipated  into the wider arena, so did the type and range of questions posed. Examples included:

  • Have you changed the colour because red is too aggressive? (no)
  • Have you chosen green because it represents growth and renewal? (no)
  • What was your reasoning for excluding orange or purple? (if the truth be known, we couldn’t buy such exotic colours in ball-point pen format at the time!)
  • Did you hold a secret ballot with the pupils to arrive at this decision? (no)
  • Do you consider different colours have different messages and meanings (no), and if so why green, and why is red problematic? (red isn’t troublesome, we wanted a change…)
  • Did you make your choice based upon educational research or findings, (no) if so, what source?

…. and so it continued.

The ultimate surprise came in the form of a telephone call from an American newspaper, where it was keen to speak with us to find out about our pioneering innovation in primary assessment……

Surprisingly, we declined the offer of an interview as we felt we were misjudged,  the rationale for our simple, straight-forward decision making had become tangled in a sea of exaggeration, when all we hoped to do was review and revise our marking systems and procedures to improve outcomes; and this is where the next consideration begins.

In my professional capacity, including extensive experience as a primary head, I have undertaken copious scrutinies and have noticed a considerable change in approach over the last five or six years.

When examining pupils’ work with subject leaders and senior staff, I am still amazed at the rainbow of colours used, including the use of fluorescent highlighters at every opportunity. Common figurative phrasing is emerging such as ‘think pink’, ‘green is good’ , GPQ – ‘green pen question’ and ‘the purple pen of progress’ all of which sound very creative, but the real question is how effective are such systems and procedures in supporting pupils to progress?

When exploring key stage 2 work, and in particular years 5 and 6, I often see what can only be described as daily mini-essays, some extending over a page in comment and recommendation. Clearly a common sense approach is needed? If teachers are spending hours marking every night, leaving them exhausted and somewhat demoralised, then something isn’t right. Indeed is this approach to marking self-inflicted?

Common flaws in today’s perceived developmental marking might include:

  • Teachers writing too much and often repeating the same commentary time after time (suggesting this needs to be addressed as a whole group / class issue)
  • Time not being allocated for pupils to respond to adults’ observations and suggestions
  • Targets for development identified, but at no point followed up in subsequent work and tasks
  • Evidence of double and triple ‘dialogic’ marking where there is a kind of a written ‘ping-pong’ between teacher and pupil, potentially stealing time from the business of learning, including pupils becoming self-organised and independent
  • Comments are generated for the benefit of a third party (e.g. SLT, governors, advisers……) rather than for pupils
  • The mind-set that all forms of feedback have to be written down

We have to ask ourselves some very pointed questions about marking. We must routinely take time to consider our decisions before jumping on the latest bandwagon e.g.

  • Why has this method been adopted?
  • Does the system make a difference to learners?
  • Is it improving attainment and achievement for all pupils?

It is not about what we do, it is about the impact upon learners. We must work smarter rather than harder.

Whilst undertaking NPQH training years ago, I remember an experienced head saying:

‘Whenever you are in the process of decision making, always ask yourself ‘what’s in it for the children – are they going to benefit?’ If the answer is no, don’t do it!’  Wise words indeed.

Finally, many colleagues have justified their decision making re marking stating it is what Ofsted expect. Let me quietly dispel this.

Ofsted have never outlined how schools should approach marking – they look to see whether chosen methods used are impacting upon attainment and progress. The new Ofsted handbook for the Common Inspection Framework summarises this well. It’s definitely worth checking out, pages 10 – 12.

Happy reading.


Linda Brown is a Senior Adviser with Services for Education. She provides support and training on developing leadership and management in schools, and can be contacted on




The status of PSHE – What importance do we place on it in our schools?

Jo Perrin joined our team of Education Advisers last September to support schools in their PSHE and Safeguarding provision. Here she writes about some of the key messages coming out about PSHE education.

The status of PSHE – What importance do we place on it in our schools?  What is the changing national picture?  Could it be a tool to drive school improvement?

At the start of the academic year Janet Palmer (HMI National Lead for PSHE Education) published an article entitled “The role of PSHE citizenship education and SMSC in obtaining good outcomes in section 5 inspection from September 2015”.  She argues powerfully that in OfSTED key documents (the Common Inspection Framework, the School Inspection Handbook and the document entitled Inspecting Safeguarding in Early years, Education and Skills Settings) there are “numerous references to school ethos, promoting equalities, preventing and tackling discrimination and bullying, cultural awareness, preparing pupils positively for life in modern Britain, challenging extremism and radicalisation, helping pupils to keep themselves healthy and safe, and providing effective and impartial careers information, education, advice and guidance” and stresses theses are “all issues that are central to effective PSHE and citizenship education and making a strong contribution to pupils’ SMSC development.

I do not believe there is a school which does not aspire to having an ethos which encompasses these aspects.  However amongst the understandable pressures schools face daily to cram ever more academic progress into a tightly packed schedule, it is often the PSHE curriculum which suffers, albeit unintentionally, from lesser financial investment and sometimes from lesser content actually being taught.  In a world where the tick-box on the spreadsheet is king, the challenge of justifying time spent teaching a curriculum based on social skills and attitudes (not so easy to quantify) is not to be underestimated.

There is increasing pressure for PSHE to become statutory.  On 7th January 2106 a letter was sent to Nicky Morgan MP (the Secretary of State for Education) once again asking her to act on the recommendations of numerous cross-party parliamentary committees and government advisers to ensure a statutory basis for PSHE education.  The letter can be found here (’-letter-to-the-Secretary-of-State-on-statutory-status-for-PSHE.pdf) and provides a strong argument for change.  Business leaders regularly add weight to this argument stressing that academic qualifications are only part of the picture when appointing employees, personal and social skills are seen as vital (and sometimes lacking) qualities in an applicant.

There is excellent practice out there, for example huge congratulations go out to those schools who will be receiving their “Health for Life” Award on 26th January following their commitment in improving physical health amongst their community.  We have schools in Birmingham who have work hard to ensure all aspects of health and well-being are supported, schools who have fully embraced student voice and democracy in all aspects of school life and schools who aren’t afraid to tackle the more difficult aspects of personal, social and health education through work with local communities on attitudes to relationships and sex education and topics such as Female Genital Mutilation.  These schools report that behaviour has improved, children are more focussed and there is a cultural where “prevention is better than cure” and students feel able to raise issues that are not positive to their well-being at an early stage.  Ultimately this leads to better academic attainment as more barriers to learning are removed.

And yet PSHE is not statutory, which means a postcode lottery for our children.  If your school has excellent practice you would like to share on this blog or in our termly newsletter please don’t hesitate to email me on and where possible we will share your ideas with other like-minded schools.  On the other hand, if you are reading this thinking that with a new budget in the Spring you might want to spend some of it on improving tomorrow’s citizens through an increased focus on PSHE then also please don’t hesitate to contact me.  At Services for Education we have a wide variety of PSHE support programmes and resources available for schools.

Here are brief details on some of the options we have available (full details can be found in the programmes of support section of our website):

  • The “Full” or “Lite” Primary School Relationships Education Programme
  • The PSHE Modelling Programme (soon to be relaunched with a new S4E scheme of work, lesson plans and resources)
  • It’s Your Place (a student voice initiative)
  • S4E working with the Jigsaw PSHE resource programme
  • Be Healthy Schools’ Award
  • An Adviser can work with staff and SLT in a number of consultation and CPD programmes
  • We also offer publications – please see on our website

Jo can be contacted on

Training on supporting children and young people deal with divorce and separation

Increasing numbers of children are living in fractured families and this can have a devastating effect on their emotional health and well-being. An understanding of how divorce and separation can affect every day life is crucial to building a strong pastoral foundation.

Audience: Primary and Secondary Pastoral Leads, Heads of Year, Form Tutors, Learning Mentors 

Aim: To provide an understanding of the consequences of divorce or separation on children’s lives and how their emotional needs can be supported in school. To consider the legal implications around divorced and separated families


By the end of the course participants will have:

  • considered the statistical evidence
  • explored the emotional and material consequences
  • explored the role school can play in supporting the child
  • an understanding of the legal implications
  • a range of resources, strategies and activities


Date: January 19th 2016

Time: 1.00 – 4.00pm

Venue: Health Education Service Training Centre, B33 0AW

Cost: £96 for schools subscribing to the Health Education Service, £120 for non-subscribers.

To book please email or visit and click on ‘Book a Course’.