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 www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-from-september-2015, pages 10 – 12.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.