Do marking policies have any role to play in schools today?

Words by Adam Boxer

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” – Hitchens’ Razor

I haven’t marked a student exercise book for close to two years. I’ve marked assessments, but barely spilled more red ink than a tick or a cross; a written comment would be a rare find in any of my students’ work. When I point this out to people, the response is always the same: “wow! How do you get away with that?” to which I respond that I am not required to do much by way of marking.

Response number 2 is equally predictable: “can I see your marking policy?” My answer is always the same: “no, you can’t. And that isn’t because it’s secret, but because I don’t have one.”

It’s a strange and depressing state of affairs that the very idea of not having a marking policy is incomprehensible to many teachers and school leaders. Strange, because there is no evidence that English schools’ decades-long love affair with marking has had the slightest impact on student out-comes, and depressing because what we do have evidence for is that it’s a horrible burden on teachers and a central driver of workload. Given Ofsted’s repeated announcements that they do not expect to see a certain style or frequency of marking, it’s a professional embarrassment that we continue to be stuck in a mindset where it is a given that marking is important, valuable, and a good use of teachers’ preciously limited time.

There are plenty of reasons to ditch marking, but the most important one is Hitchens’ Razor quoted above. Any claim made about marking that does not have any evidence attached to it can be ignored. That’s it. There’s no reason to countenance it. If I walked into your school and said “you know what I really think would really help your students? Change the school uniform ties from navy to grey!” I don’t think I’d be walking back out again with a nice fat cheque in my pocket for consultancy services rendered. My assertion, made without evidence, would have been rightly dismissed.

For the avoidance of doubt, my department Teaching and Learning policy does indeed have a section on feedback:

• All practice work will be completed by all students, with the overwhelming majority reviewed in whole class feedback.

• Teachers are not expected to mark students day-to-day work, but they are expected to closely monitor students as they practise and intervene where necessary.

• All student practice work is marked by students in purple pen

That’s pretty much it. Teachers are expected to monitor and check their students’ work in class as they practice. Teachers are expected to sample student responses in whole class review once students have finished their work.

But taking the books in? Marking them? Forget it.

We have a couple of big assessments a year that teachers mark (ticks and crosses), but we aim to train students in effective self-assessment and build classroom cultural habits of reflection and open conversation that enable students to easily identify what a good or bad answer looks like.

Whole-class-feedback is becoming increasingly fashionable, with teachers expected to read a wadge of student work and jot down some commonalities to discuss as a class. Following this practice, when we mark big exams, we each write down a couple of things that are high leverage that we think should be incorporated into future lessons and discuss them in department meetings.

If one of my team were writing detailed comments on student work, I wouldn’t straight up ask them to stop, but I would certainly challenge them on it – is there nothing else you could be doing with your time that would have a bigger effect? What about improving the clarity of your explanations in this week’s upcoming lessons? What about building a question set that has skilfully crafted problems of steadily escalating difficulty? What about going onto our online quizzing platform and spending more time reading through student responses to pick up on collective error or misconception?

It’s even a source of annoyance to me that I need to write the “Teachers are not expected to mark students’ day-to-day work” clause above in the policy. It shouldn’t be necessary. But marking culture is so ingrained that if you don’t make it absolutely clear, people won’t believe you. Even then, maybe they still won’t believe you – but when there are so many good reasons to do so, they should.

By eradicating marking as an accountability tool, not only do teachers have more time to execute more effective activities, but actually you change the whole culture around student books. In previous years, an announcement of “book scrutiny!” would have provoked mass alarm and hysteria, with teachers lugging sacks of exercise books home over the weekend, cracking out the purple pens and stamps and making sure their pupil premium students’ books had twice as much teacher writing as student work.

When I asked recently for some books to be brought to a department meeting there was neither fear nor stress, because we weren’t looking at what the teacher was doing, but at what the student was doing. We had rich discussions about students’ work: how it varied from student to student, how some students were self-assessing their work carefully and critically, whereas others were just ticking everything as correct. How some errors were made by lots of students and how we can pre-empt that error in future. How some practice work was clearly too easy for the students, and some was clearly too hard. How sometimes it felt like they weren’t being given enough notes, and other times it felt like maybe the notes were so voluminous they should have been printed or added to our booklets in advance.

The discussion was rooted in mutual professional respect and integrity. Nobody was scared, stressed or worried that they would be told off for not doing enough marking. This freedom from banal accountability liberated us to make honest and self-critical reflections. Those reflections then bled over into the classroom, and instead of thinking “how am I going to get these books to look nice?” I thought “how am I going to ensure that Daniel is self-assessing effectively, David spends less time highlighting his notes and Stephanie isn’t making the same mistake over and over again?”

As time goes on, I hope more and more schools decide to move away from burdensome marking policies and cultures. I hope that, at some point in the near future, the non-existence of a marking policy will be completely unremarkable.

Adam is head of science at a North London Academy. He tweets at @adamboxer1 and blogs at achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com. He is a co-founder of Carousel Learning, a holistic online quiz-zing platform aimed at improving student retention in all school subjects.

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