Why are we still talking about workload from marking?


In 2014 the government’s Workload Challenge survey identified the frequency and extent of marking requirements as a key driver of large teacher workloads. The reform of marking policies was the highest workload-related priority for 53% of respondents. More recently, the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group noted that written marking had become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers and recommended that all marking should be driven by professional judgement and be “meaningful, manageable and motivating”.

The opening statement of the EEF review of the evidence on written marking highlights the biggest issue that faces teachers on a daily basis. Getting their books marked. So, as 2019 draws to a close, why is marking still the driving teachers from the profession as one of the biggest parts of an unsustainable workload?

It isn’t as though this is a rarely discussed topic. There are regular posts on twitter and a quick google search quickly finds a number of blog posts on the topic.

In March 2019, Clare Sealy (@ClareSealy), then head of St Matthias School in Tower Hamlets wrote about her attitudes to marking and how they had changed. She had been a firm believer in heavy-duty marking, which was showing great results in writing. She was proud of the quality of workbooks that were being produced by the children and staff and enjoyed it when they were held up as great examples of marking making a difference.

Her school will no doubt have inspired other schools to embark on similar heavy-duty marking drives to emulate the successes that they were having. However, the burden of marking on teachers was also noted by the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group – Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking. It suggested that providing written feedback on pupils’ work has become disproportionately valued by schools, and the quantity of feedback has too often become confused with the quality.

The key finding of the EEF report was that there is not enough evidence of the impact of marking to make a judgement. Because of the influence in schools of heads like Clare Sealy and the Super-head that inspired her, it’s commonly assumed that forms of marking like DIRT, triple impact, red pen / green pen are effective, there are as yet no specific studies to support this.

Clare’s response was to ban marking in her school for a whole term.

So what is effective? Why aren’t we doing more of that?

We know from the EEF studies and others that feedback to learners about their performance and how to improve it is hugely important, adding an average of eight months progress. However, marking is only a subset of feedback, and as we have seen one that lacks any real evidence on what is effective.

The EEF notes that in many cases verbal feedback to pupils will do the same thing as marking, but much more quickly and much more efficiently.

The DfE marking policy review group recommended that schools made marking part of an assessment policy alongside other practices, rather than having a dedicated marking policy.

Feedback can take many forms, Michael Tidd, in a 2016 blog, identified three ways that it can be given and listed them in order of decreasing order.

  1. Immediate feedback – at the point of teaching
  2. Summary feedback – at the end of a lesson/task
  3. Review feedback – away from the point of teaching (including written comments)

With these recommendations in place, why is marking still a burden to teachers?

Apart from the hangover of an OFTSED fuelled fear that should have been cured by now, but in some cases hasn’t. The main issue is one of change management. Schools are working in isolation, developing their own individual methods of working. They don’t collaborate and share their expertise where there are successes. This is not the fault of the schools, there isn’t a simple mechanism for sharing expertise, but it is a shame that expertise within the education system is not being used effectively.

In addition, there are a number of barriers which make such collaborative approaches more challenging. Whether it is a lack of time to allow for collaboration, too many other challenges consuming resources or simply the pressures placed on schools to do well compared to others disincentivizing them.

In some cases, there is simply a reluctance to share or discuss ideas and worries for fear of criticism or fear of showing vulnerability and weakness

Secondarily to the issue of change management, there still remains a lack of consensus on the way forward between traditionalists and progressives in education, the lack of evidence regarding marking doesn’t seem to be allowing a consensus to be reached – although most educators recognise that workload is a huge barrier for staff retention and recruitment.

This lack of consensus has seen many schools striking out on their own to develop their own feedback strategies, but this bottom-up approach to school improvement doesn’t sustain wider school improvement because of the issues stated above regarding change management.

Until schools are able (and prepared) to find the time to open themselves up to more wide discussion their practice then widespread change won’t happen, instead, there will be pockets of good and outstanding practice which will act as a beacon for some schools but not the majority.

In the meantime, if you are considering how you can tame the beast that is marking and feedback, this 2018 post from Huntington Research School may be of interest to you.

Although written back in 2013, Alex Quigley sums up the key issues around a marking focus in this post on making a marking and feedback policy. which also references the work of Tom Sherrington (2012) and Dylan Wiliam & Paul Black – Inside the Black Box is an excellent read.

If you want to engage in wider discussions regarding the sharing of expertise and good practice, then get in touch with us here at Education Roundtables to see how we can help facilitate conversations with your peers.

Other References

Clare Sealy – Confessions of a primary headteacher

Independent Teacher Workload Review Group – Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking.

EEF – A marked improvement – A review of the evidence on written marking.

Michael Tidd – A policy for feedback not marking

Tom Sherrington – Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective