How We Mark!

Hello everybody, I hope you are all well. Before I dive into more marking hijinx, I have a few announcements to make:

I have a podcast! The Mr M’s Musings Podcast show is now available on Spotify, Google Podcasts and iTunes. If you enjoy the blog posts, you’ll enjoy the podcast.

This week’s post is a continuation of the previous Why We Mark post, which was itself a sort of spiritual sequel to Mark My Words - a very popular post from June, 2019. You can check them both out by following the links.

The Keeping Children Safe in Education revisions 2022 consultation is still open. To have your say on the changes made by the DfE on this document, click here. Also still open is the chance for Secondary schools to take part in mental health and wellbeing research during March and April next year.  You can find out more about that in my February round-up of DfE news here

Right, that’s it with the announcements, on with this week’s offering…

How We Mark Books…

And boy, how we do! I tried to find out if schools from around the world used marking policies like we do here in England but it was a difficult thing to research. I got a lot of information on how they approach terminal grading but not every day marking. If anyone out there can enlighten me, I’d love to know more.

As a result, this post might be quite England-centric. And straight away, I have made a common error in nomenclature (it’s not unusual in education for outdated terms to be so ingrained that they just won’t die; ‘Computing’ hasn’t been ‘ICT’ for eight years but a lot of schools still use the pre-2014 term). You seem it turns out that there isn’t (or shouldn’t be) such a thing as a ‘marking’ policy. According to the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group:

“Marking should be part of an assessment policy alongside other practices that inform teachers, create positive pupil outcomes and drive future planning. Giving marking 7 separate policy status may have contributed to the perception that it is more important and has more impact than other types of feedback." [1]


Ironically, this report was written by the Chair of the Marking Policy Review Group! You couldn't make it up.

Anyway, marking policies should not be an entity in and of themselves. But they are. A quick Google search will bring up any number of schools’ marking policies. This is strange because they do not have to do this. The only policy the government requires to have online is the behaviour policy [2]. Honestly, the standards of websites of English Primary schools could take up a whole post on its own. Another time, maybe. For now, it is a good thing that so many of them have published their marking policy… even if they shouldn’t have one. It allowed me to be nosey and see what was common across a range of schools up and down this sceptred isle.

Why the school marks books

This is common across all of the policies I looked at. Every school had a justification along the lines of: marking is important because it helps us record achievement throughout the year, which helps to assess the children. Different words here and there but overall, the sentiment was the same. We mark books because it is part of assessment (which is why it should be part of an assessment policy; not a separate marking policy). 

This is fair. The reason schools have terminal exams is to provide evidence of achievement and progression and the government fully accepts that not every aspect of teaching and learning can be assessed through a handy-dandy end of year exam. So this is fair and I think it should stay.

The other common introductory theme is that marking helps to encourage pupil independence in learning. This is obviously through self- and peer-moderation. Again, I’m a big fan of this (as will be revealed when I write the How to Make Marking Work for You post coming soon!)... if it is done properly.

Finally, the big push for marking is that it should provide constructive feedback for the children. Successes should be highlighted; errors should be linked to the intention of the lesson; and children should be better and more reflective learners as a result.

This is a lovely sentiment but I have rarely seen it in practice. If schools’ marking truly promoted independent, reflective children, there would be far less of it to do come to the end of Primary school. Those children should be so well-versed in checking against Success Criteria and Learning Objectives that the books get marked themselves. 

Is that happening for anyone? Don’t all shout at once.

It’s platitudinous lip-service like this that makes me very cynical when it comes to marking policies. I once worked in a school in Greenwich where a whole staff meeting was given over to going through every English and maths books to check that the marking policy had been adhered to since September. This was in May.

When I suggested that our time would be better spent reviewing the policy, I was made very aware that rocking the boat was not encouraged. Still, I persisted (I’m a rebel). If, I argued, there is an element of the policy that has been consistently ignored, but progression is still evident in all children, surely that element is superfluous and should be removed from the policy. What we needed, I continued, was a streamlined policy that was easy to implement not just for staff but for the children as well, especially if we were to encourage independence in learning and reflection (this was during the whole ‘Growth Mindset’ movement that infected English schools for a while. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about the ‘power of …yet’ but it has to be genuine for it to work and, in the schools I experienced, it was just another fad. Anyone remember Brain Gym?). Apparently, that was not the point of the meeting. We were there to make sure the books matched the policy; not that the policy matched the teaching.

And this brings us to another disturbing commonality among many of the policies I read. 

They are woefully out of date!

One policy had been written in 2013 - before the curriculum changed - and was awaiting review. Another had at least been received in 2015, so that’s only eight years out of date. At least three that I looked at didn’t even have a date and only one had been reviewed in 2020 and had information on remote learning and how to account for digital marking and assessment (all of them were specifically ‘Marking’ policies).

This is absurd. School policies, according to the government’s own website, should be updated annually (where this is not mandatory, it is ‘recommended’). So what’s going on here? No updates since 2015? That’s the dark ages for education! 

Well, the problem stems from the curriculum change in 2014, when National Curriculum levels were removed and schools were given free rein over how they would assess. This led to the birth of local assessment policies. There are no national guidelines. Ofsted (the school inspectorate of England) doesn’t care ("Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment."[original emphasis] [3]; so we have this bizarre situation where a policy can be historic, completely unsuited to modern teaching and almost contradictory to its own introductory paragraph. It’s hard to encourage independent thinking and learning within the modern curriculum when the marking is still linked to standards and practises from 2012 (some schools are still using APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) targets. These haven't existed for over a decade).

Who wants a walkthrough for the marking policy?

I once taught in France for a bit. I was given the three-year plan for the school (it was on one sheet of A4 paper) and a red pen to mark with. When I explained how much of a novelty it would be to mark in red ink, I was given two (so that I could make the sign of the cross back in England). When I was at school as a child, my teachers would mark in red ink. It didn’t bother me. In Secondary school, my Year 9 English teacher marked in either red or purple ink and, if you were lucky, you would get the gentle transition between the two when she changed ink cartridges. At uni, through all my degrees, lecturers marked in pencil.

Now, I don’t want to be that guy, but having my work marked in a set colour didn’t negatively affect me at all. And yet, red ink is the most banned colour in all schools in England. I don’t know why. We are educating a generation of children who have never had work marked in red but still associate it with negativity. It’s pathetic. The marking policies don’t even allow for negativity (everything must encourage and grow - nothing is ‘wrong’; it’s ‘correct-adjacent’). Why can’t we mark in whatever colour we like? 

I have some international readers and I truly hope you are laughing at the utter absurdity of this. In the marking policies I looked at, there were no fewer than 7 separate colours mentioned. One school had five alone:

  • Green for the teacher at the end of the day
  • Blue for recording verbal feedback at the time
  • Purple for children when marking someone else’s work
  • Pink for children responding to the green marking of the teacher
  • Orange for children when self-marking 

Quite how the colourblind children cope I have no idea. 

And it’s not just the colour coding, oh no, there are actual codes as well. You need a qualification from Bletchley Park to mark at some of these schools! Squiggly lines to highlight a misspelt topic word; Dots in the margin for secretarial errors (don’t identify more than three in any one day); a carat (^) to show a missing word; an eyeball for a word-that-could-be-better; lines above, under and though words, each for different reasons; VF for ‘verbal feedback’ (make sure you write a brief transcript of the conversation); ‘TA’ for other adult intervention; initials of the child who discussed your ideas; Two stars and a wish; SP (‘scaffolded prompt’; not ‘spelling mistake’); WWW; EBI; NS…

On my trawl through the policies, I saw, on average, 21 separate codes for Key Stage 2 and 19 for Key stage 1. 19! N-i-n-e-t-e-e-n individual coded entries to mark the work of 5-year-olds. And they have to understand them as well because they need to respond.

My absolute favourite though, and several schools were guilty of this, was the policy point that, while verbal feedback is the best for immediate improvement, a written record of what was said must be added to the book at the end of the day. What’s the point?  Once school even had a policy point that comments should be dated, written on a separate sheet, along with the names of the children who received the comment, and stored in the planning file (for those of you unfamiliar with English school systems, planning files are not a legal requirement and no school can insist on them). 

And we wonder why so many teachers have mental health issues related to stress.

The amount of marking Primary Teachers have to do…

We’ve all heard the joke that Primary teachers are responsible mostly for colouring in. It’s hilarious, really, and I wish it were the case. Alas, we are expected to mark, on average, 30 sets of books, for at least three separate subjects, every day. That’s 90 books. Minimum. One school I looked at required 12 pieces of work to be acknowledged through physical marking every day. Even the most progressive school I looked at, the one with only 15 codes, required daily marking for English, maths and at least one foundation subject. 

When you think about the amount we are expected to mark, you begin to wonder, when did we find the time to teach all of this learning we’re marking?!

Remember that report I mentioned earlier? The Eliminating Unnecessary Workload one? That report found that providing written feedback on children’s work had become a “disproportionately valued” and unnecessary burden for teachers [5]. It argued - no, not argued, found through research and discussion - that quality of marking had been replaced with quantity and that it was demoralising teachers. What’s more, it found “very little evidence” that intensive marking made any difference at all on pupil progress.

This was an independent review for the government written in 2016. It is now seven years later and nothing much has changed. Part of this is that we’re still yoked to marking policies, that shouldn’t even exist, written before this review was even a thing.

It has to change. 

At this point, I would love to provide you with a template for an Assessment Policy that you could take to your Head or Governor but, in reality, that wouldn’t work. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ magic pill for this; it must be decided on a school-by-school basis. What I can offer is an idea of how to approach reforms to the marking element of your school’s assessment policy.

  1. Go through a selection of books and see which elements of the policy are being used practically on a day-to-day basis. If there is no evidence that a policy point is improving achievement or attainment, scrap it.
  2. Remember, schools are not judged on the amount of marking in any given book. They are judged on outcomes. If the work was practical, and the evidence is a photo or a weblink, then I would argue that the marking was verbal.
  3. Schools will not be judged on whether or not they keep records of verbal feedback. Stop writing transcripts.
  4. Books will not be used by inspectors to assess teaching so book ‘scrutinies’ should be replaced with regular whole-staff discussions.
  5. Acknowledging work and effort is an important element of marking; so carve out some time in a lesson to mark with the children. This way, easy misconceptions are dealt with in a more timely and relevant manner, and evaluations can be applied to the next day’s teaching immediately.

I’ll close with a direct extract from the report:

The time taken to mark does not always correlate with successful pupil outcomes and leads to wasted teacher time. Examples of disproportionate marking practice include: extensive comments which children in an early years’ class are unable to read, or a written dialogue instead of a conversation. If teachers are spending more time on marking than the children are on a piece of work then the proportion is wrong and should be changed. 

If the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress: stop it (original emphasis). [4]

Thanks for sticking with me this far, if you like what you've read, feel free to subscribe to the blog and give the podcast a try.  If you feel so inclined, leave a comment below, drop me an email or sent me a tweet.  Stay healthy, stay sane and until next time, keep teaching!


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References from this post:

 1, 4 & 5) Eliminating Unnecessary Workload around Marking: Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, 2016.

2)  Guidance: What maintained schools must publish online.

3) Ofsted. (2019). Education inspection framework (EIF).

Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking: report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. (2016). [Text]. Department for Education.

Ofsted. (2019). Education inspection framework (EIF).