Grasping the Nettle – Why We No Longer Mark

I’ve been a teacher for a long time and I’ve always worked hard. Some of my previous headteachers might say I sometimes worked on the wrong things, but genuinely, I’ve grafted throughout my career. I have always known that teaching is about service. We are educating the next generation to be the best that they can be and that is a huge responsibility.

When I say that previous bosses might have questioned my priorities, what I mean is that marking was never as much a priority to me as they might have liked. I used to begrudgingly mark the children’s work whilst muttering to myself the same words that have been uttered by generations of teachers.

Who am I marking this for? The only people that read the comments are my Head and the child’s parents.

How will what I’m doing now make them know more? It’s repeating in writing what I have already told them.

Is this what I came into teaching for? I want to educate, inform and inspire, not spend my time writing comments for the sake of people who look at the books, rather than the people who work in them.

I spent as little time marking as possible and as much time, researching, planning, running extra-curricular clubs and interacting with my pupils. I knew my families well, I was part of the community and I like to think I found the best possible way to make sure that my pupils learnt well.

For all of that, I thought that my resistance, and lack of full commitment to marking, meant that I was incomplete as a teacher, a damaged cog in the system. I was working hard, but without making the full impact – and I felt bad about it.

When I became a Head I followed this up with an even bigger error – I tried to fix teachers like me. I thought that if I could show them the mistakes that I had made, then they wouldn’t make the same ones. I thought I could inspire them to mark well.  Forgetting all my previous inner dialogue, I told myself and them that it was for the children and their future and that we had a moral imperative. I was a fool. As the saying goes, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

It took time, research, two insistent Deputies and actually seeing it in practice for me to realise that it was good quality feedback, and not marking, that was going to make a difference to pupils’ understanding and at the same time radically improve work life balance for teachers.

We wrote, trialled, modified and finally implemented a policy last year with the following fundamental principles.

  • Look at every child’s work
  • Acknowledge every child’s work with a tick.
  • Give ten minutes at the beginning of every lesson to good quality verbal feedback in response to what you have seen, including sufficient time for the children to improve their work.

The policy is more detailed than that (and you are welcome to have a copy), but that is the essence of it. And it’s working. Pupils are retaining more because they understand how they have had to revisit and rethink about their work. They are more confident because they can see how much they have improved through their own efforts. They are working harder because they have proved to themselves that they are more capable than they thought, and that the responsibility (and opportunity) is theirs.

Some teachers were wary at first. The first hesitant steps of captives freed always are. But they have taken to it and can see how effective it is.

Both of the schools in our Federation have been inspected by Ofsted in the last three months. The Feedback policy and its implementation were viewed positively in both inspections and were seen as key to many of our successes. This will speed up the full commitment of all, as knowing something works is a really good driver for change.

So maybe I wasn’t a million miles away as a fledgling teacher in the early 90s. Maybe we need to really consider the impact of some of the things we hold as fundamental in our education system, and be prepared to adapt and reform.  The reasons I became a teacher are still central to my vocation, but perhaps we can be brave and give even more to the next generation.


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