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Marking in Primary Schools

by Jack Dabell on October 31

On Your Marks…

In the light of the new Ofsted framework, never has ‘staff well-being’ been so heavily emphasised, and rightly so! All schools should be evaluating the well-being of their staff, including implementing ways to manage and reduce workload.

Ask yourself this question: other than direct teaching, what contributes most to your workload?

And then ask yourself this question: other than direct teaching, what has the biggest impact on a child’s development?

Did you get the same answer for both? If you did, then congratulations! Your school, in my opinion, has their priorities straight.

In my experience I would have gotten two different answers. Marking (bar my last year of teaching when we drastically changed our marking policy for the better – more on that later) would have been the biggest contributing factor to my workload, and I’m sure a lot of you got the same answer. And what had the biggest impact on the children would have been planning.

I opened a poll via our FSF twitter account recently asking our followers to choose between planning, admin, marking and meetings for what their biggest workload factor is.

Interestingly, and contrary to what I thought would happen, admin came top with 44% of the votes. Marking was second with 28%. Followed by planning at 16% and meetings with 12%. (In the interest of being honest with you all, there was a total of 25 votes in this study so feel free to take the representativeness with a pinch of salt.) However, even given our small sized study group, I thought marking would reign supreme, but I can see the term “admin” might, for some people, encompass those numerous little jobs we all do that really add up!

Do these results signify a change for the better? Would marking have come higher if this poll was taken a couple of years ago? Perhaps.

I decided to follow this poll up with another poll because I recently learned you could do this sort of thing and I think it’s fun!

The second question, with the same options: “What do you think has the biggest impact on a child’s development?” Unsurprisingly, no one said marking and planning came top.

One can now draw the conclusion, in a rough and roundabout way, that quite a few people, myself included, consider marking their biggest time-sink and the least impactful.

Get set…

The Independent Teacher Workload Review Group in their report on teacher workload and marking defines effective marking as the following:

“Effective marking is an essential part of the education process. At its heart, it is an interaction between teacher and pupil: a way of acknowledging pupils’ work, checking the outcomes and making decisions about what teachers and pupils need to do next, with the primary aim of driving pupil progress.”

Sums it up quite nicely, doesn’t it? Even I can’t really argue with that. But this is saying what effective marking is. The real question: is your marking effective? That’s what schools and practitioners need to be asking themselves. When evaluating your marking policy, consider this: Does the impact match the input? In other words, is the marking helping children develop enough to warrant the time and effort the staff are putting into it? Could you lessen the input and achieve the same impact? In a lot of cases, I think you can.

If you’ll indulge me, I will give you my experience of marking and feedback.

When doing regular marking in Key Stage 2 (let’s not get started on “deep” marking), I had to write at least one green comment indicating something the child could do to improve next time and at least two pink comments indicating something I enjoyed about the piece of work (we are all familiar with the 2 stars and a wish approach) The child then had to act upon this feedback in some way – usually the day after – consequently making it even less relevant for the child. After which, I would have to review what they had done in response to my response. This was for all core subjects, every day. So, three comments in sixty books, minimum – not including the foundation subject marking.

Sadly, this probably doesn’t sound unfamiliar to a lot of you. Another school, where a friend of mine worked, took this one step further and expected the teacher to respond to the child’s work, then the child had to respond to that response and then the teacher had to respond to their response of the original response. I mean… where does it end? At some point in the process, you’ve just accidentally developed a pen-pal. It’s an awful lot of input and when SLT reviewed our policy as a school, it became frighteningly clear it wasn’t having the right impact.

Thankfully, this kind of format is slowly becoming outdated as more and more research is put into alternative methods of marking and feedback.  We drastically altered our marking policy and placed a much heavier emphasis on “live marking” (marking during the lesson to facilitate a face to face conversation and gauge impact in real time) as well as interventions – another chance to follow up with the child, fill gaps and extend learning when appropriate.

Of course, looking at the books after the lesson should never be underestimated. It’s nigh impossible to get around to all your students in one lesson, let alone sit with them and have a meaningful discussion. Reviewing the books after the lesson is an excellent way for teachers to reflect on the lesson as a whole and pick up on those children who may have “slipped through the net”. It’s also a good opportunity to decide which piece or pieces of work you are going to praise. Contrary to children answering green comments the day after, celebrating work the day after actually works! Even if (God forbid) the child has forgotten that lesson entirely the next morning – having a picture of their work on the board and you, proudly proclaiming to the class why you liked it so much, always manages to jog their memory.

Our marking scheme changed from a daily grind of caffeine-fuelled pink and green penmanship to having more face-to-face discussions with the children and being more reflective on the work as a whole.

After the lessons were done and the kids had scurried home, marking would consist of looking through the books and evaluating the lesson. We had a sheet to fill in (of course) but it was helpful! We’d note which children needed a follow up intervention, what the children with SEND did that lesson and how that went, which piece of work we are going to celebrate the next day. For English, we’d make a note of any common spelling errors so we could go over them the next day. It was structured. It was helpful and it didn’t take three hours to do. It gave me, as an educator, time to focus on more important things.


Why make the change? Well, it harks back to the definition of marking we talked about earlier. Marking is an essential part of the education process. However, how marking should be done seems to have lost its way a bit and, in some cases, it’s stumbling blind-folded through a forest at night.

The rising emphasis on “deep” marking over the years, the cultural and professional expectation that writing reams of feedback makes you a better teacher and the sometimes too-high expectations of schools could be attributed to a number of factors. As outlined in the Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking report: Ofsted praising certain marking techniques and thus setting a standard to others, schools misinterpreting government requirements and people distorting the main messages in Assessment for Learning could all have led to the shared idea of what marking should look like.

Whatever the reasons, it’s clear things need to change. Marking and feedback can take many forms and it’s up to you to decide what it looks like. Joe Kirby wrote a great blog post about alternatives to written feedback which is worth a read. Experiment with different methods. Ask the staff, parents and children what they think! Most importantly, find that perfect balance between input and impact.

Jack Dabell

Jack is part of the Product Support Team and the Education Team at Tapestry. He taught in Key Stage 2 for four years but now spends most of his time stroking his beard and thinking about how to make his articles funnier.