Why am I still putting pen on my pupil's books?

How many hours do I spend marking literacy a week? How much impact do the judiciously gnomic statements I scribble on children’s work make? Is there a better way?

I want to be creative in my teaching because that makes me enjoy my job and inspire my pupils. I want time to think up innovative ways of delivering cool learning opportunities. I want to get to the end of the school day and know that learning has happened and that progress is already secure. And then I want to go home, or out into the wider world and enjoy my life, content that my job is going well and I still have some of the evening left to me However, the demand that written marking makes on my time creates one seemingly insurmountable barrier to all this

As a current year 5/6 teacher, it is not unusual for my class of 28 to create 4 significant pieces of writing a week. Do some basic arithmetic: if I give each child two minutes per piece of work, that works out at about 4 hours of written marking. A week. Just for literacy.

And it’s not just my time that is lost. In 2014, the Government’s Workload Challenge survey showed that reform of marking policies was the highest workload-related priority for 53% of respondents. It is not hard to see why; outdated ofsted advice, coupled with a desire to have concrete evidence of everything that happens in a classroom, has led written marking to become the dominant way of giving feedback.

Furthermore, strong myths that have established themselves around written marking, lead it to be done for the wrong reasons. The Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, set up by the government to respond to teachers’ cries of too much marking, noted:

In many cases the view is that you must spend hours marking to be a good teacher; that writing pages of feedback makes you more effective; and that there is a link between the quantity of marking and pupil progress. These are myths that need to be debunked.

So, given my own misapprehensions about the nature of written marking, here is a handy bullet-pointed list of reasons it’s a crazy practice:

  • It takes up too much time. Whether it has an impact or not, written marking takes up a serious amount of time. Time I would rather spend thinking up inspiring lesson ideas, gathering quality resources, drinking coffee while reading aspirational interior design magazines; anything really, other than marking.
  • There is currently little or no evidence that written marking makes any difference to progress.
  • Written marking can actually be counter productive. It can reduce a child’s ability to spot mistakes and correct their own work.
  • Ofsted does not require it. It does not specify the frequency, type or volume of written marking it needs to see in books. Interestingly, it also doesn’t specify that any written record of verbal feedback is required.
  • Feedback is best given as the learning is happening – something verbal feedback can deliver more easily.
  • New teachers don’t stay teaching for long. In October 2016, the Government confirmed that nearly a third of teachers who joined the profession in 2010 had left teaching within five years.

What then, can be done differently? And, more radically, what would a school without written marking look like?

The Independent Teacher Workload Review Group noted three main principles to stick to when thinking about what written feedback should involve. They state that it should be meaningful, manageable and motivational. Check out their article for the details, but in a nutshell:

  • Marking should be Meaningful – Marking should serve a single purpose – to advance pupil progress and outcomes. There are many ways that children can make that progress, written marking is only one of them.
  • Marking should be Manageable – If marking is taking more time than the child took to write the piece, it’s too much. If the marking relates to more than the success criteria of the lesson, it’s too much. If a teacher feels that it is encroaching on their personal lives, it’s too much.
  • Marking should be Motivational – Children can be demoralised by an endless series of next steps – the implication being that nothing is ever good enough. Progress should be celebrated, and celebrated simply (gold star, anyone?). Moreover, too much marking can actually demotivate a student to take responsibility for their own editing and improving.

Finally, I would like to go a little further and ask the following question: if progress can be secured through good teaching (i.e. what happens during the lesson) and effective feedback can be given verbally, why not drop written marking completely?

Given the impact this would have on teacher workload alone, it seems a smart move. Giving teachers more time to plan, talk and gather resources and ideas; giving them more time to respond to feedback and assessment; giving them more time for life outside of school: all these things must impact positively on the progress of pupils. Even if written feedback were proved to have some effectiveness, the time it takes from other things surely means we would be better served by discounting it as a method of teaching.

Furthermore, effective verbal feedback can cover everything that written marking can do. It can mean that the feedback given to children is received as they are engaged in learning. It can also mean that a teacher has a chance get to the end of the day without a soul-destroying pile of books to deal with.

And maybe the time gained is when the next great inspirational lesson idea can come, or the supportive conversation with colleagues can take place, or a great cup of coffee and a magazine be read. Whatever. Progress will have been secured and everyone will have gained.