Marking my words

For my sins I have just had to read though some 80 or so Ofsted reports. Once I got past the cut and paste nature of some of the inspectors’ comments (literally whole paragraphs that are identical crop in up some reports) two issues jumped out.

First, the huge number of schools where marking or pupils’ work and the provision of feedback is in adequate. Typical comments include:

  • Marking is inconsistent. It has improved during the year, but it still does not always tell pupils clearly enough what they need to do to improve their work.
  • Making sure marking clearly identifies strengths and areas for improvement and giving pupils time to respond to the feedback given
  • The difference between English and mathematics in the support and guidance for pupils exposes an insufficient amount of monitoring of pupils’ exercise books and inconsistencies in teachers’ implementation of the marking policy in particular.
  • Marking has improved recently, but pupils do not routinely know what they need to do to improve their work from marking or from feedback in lessons to help them make the most progress.
  • Improve achievement by reviewing the systems for the marking of pupils’ work and the setting of targets, to ensure that pupils are consistently given clear guidance on how to improve their work and reach the next step in their learning. 

  • Marking has improved and there is some emerging good practice in the marking of writing. This is not consistent across all classes, nor does it extend to subjects other than English. Even the most constructive marking loses its impact when pupils are not given the opportunity to act on advice on how to improve their work.

It would be unfair to say that this issue featured in every report but it was an extremely frequent occurrence. Nor is the problem explained by the reports I examined being of disproportionately poorly performing schools – they weren’t, though outstanding schools were probably a bit under-represented. In fact the problem is more serious than the comments above might suggest because the second big issue to emerge from my marathon reading session was that inspectors were even more critical of the use of assessment data. These two observations – one analytical and the other exhortatory – illustrate the general weakness:

  • Assessment of progress is not always accurate and so cannot be reliably used by all staff to identify pupils at risk of falling behind and give them extra help 
  • Secure good or outstanding teaching in all lessons by ensuring that all teachers use assessment information effectively to pitch tasks at levels that enable pupils of different ages and abilities to make good progress.

I am not saying anything particularly startling or new  – indeed the Chief Inspector referred to the issue in his last annual report.  Explaining what characterised poor teaching and learning  Sir Michael said:

“Marking is irregular or not detailed enough. Teachers don’t tell pupils how to improve. When they do, the information is too vague or pupils can’t read it. As a result, pupils have little idea about how to improve their work.” – The report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills: Schools, 2011/12.

But how is it that in the 20 years since Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam published their seminal work on formative assessment the school system as a whole has not made more progress on providing better feedback to pupils?

How is it that initial teacher training and professional development are failing to embed key skills?

What is the answer to securing a step-change in practice?

Will School Direct change the culture or just perpetuate and pass on existing bad habits?

Will teaching schools or academy chains prove any more effective in this area?

It’s these issues that practitioners, policy makers and politicians should be addressing rather than constantly fiddling with the examination system.


9 thoughts on “Marking my words

  1. There is an easy answer to this. And an obvious one. We don’t have time to do all the stuff that the experts say constitutes good marking. In fact, the more sophisticated the marking policy is, the less often we’ll be able to mark.

    • I couldn’t disagree more. One has to simply accept that there isn’t enough time to fit it all in rather than attempt a substandard sprint through as much material as humanly possible. Why teach something, notice students are doing it right and leave it behind?

      Make your marking planning. I will often set aside class time to respond to feedback, You are wasting your time marking at all if you don’t give it time to breathe in the classroom. I don’t mark everything. Nowhere near. However I mark certain things for certain reasons with a clear rationale, guided by what I want students to get out of a topic/half a term, and focus on that to mark properly. It is no more time consuming than any other way.

  2. Great blog – we are a recognition & rewards software company being using by 600 secondary schools in the UK to improve motivation.

    We run regular webinar session for teachers & governors and would love you to be featured in a future event.
    Over 78K teachers login in to our platform weekly so we can always get a good audience.

    Do let me know if you are interested in contributing?

    An example webinar can be found here


    Colin Brown
    Director of Engagement
    Vivo Rewards

    • With all due respect, what on earth has this got to do with assessment and marking. We use vivos at our school, but it does not help us to assess or mark only reward!

  3. Is not half the problem that it’s very easy for Ofsted to go round saying that making should be better, but never providing clear feedback and direction themselves: what should that making look like?
    It strikes me that done if the most powerful elements of Wiliam and Black’s work are about the teacher responding to feedback, not the children. The focus on what teachers write is not necessarily the best marker of teachers using the feedback cycle well.

    • Ofsted would do well to look at teacher workload as a starting point and then make a proper objective decision as to whether or not it is humanely possible to assess and mark as they would like in the time a teacher has available for the amount of classes they teach versus the PPA allocated which has always been disproportionately insufficient, especially for those teachers who have multiple classes!

  4. The reflections on the Ofsted reports do not take into consideration as well the parental contribution to the argument. Having experienced upper KS2 parents for over a decade now I clearly state that their perceptions of quality marking differ greatly. Some wish to have large comments on every piece of work; others a simple statement. Many KS1 colleagues bemoan having to write large comments on Year 1 children’s books, which the child cannot read. Yes they can then read what it says to the child but does this not create extra work and raise the point of for whom are the comments being written: parents; inspectors. Forgive me for stating this but aren’t we there primarily for the children’s benefit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s