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Outstanding Lessons, Redesigning Classrooms

The Hi-5 of Principled Marking Design

Marking is simultaneously an occupational necessity and the bane of many teachers’ lives.  The current marking frenzy and associated workload in schools is a product of system wide fear, stupidity and ignorance.  Fear of Ofsted, stupidity of some leaders (mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa) and the ignorance of too many teachers about the principles that sit behind a pile of books which need marking.  Fear, stupidity and ignorance are powerful multipliers of each other.


Marking is too often high volume, time intensive, low impact work for teachers.  As with many blogs this originates in a current issue we are working on across the Trust.  The various academies’ Marking or Feedback Policies were written to address a deficit.  Like many policies they had a time and place but the academies have all moved on and so must these policies.  In rethinking our approach it helps to go back to first principles and use them as the drivers of the current redesign.

I’m using the term “marking” as shorthand for an activity within a greater process that provides feedback to a teacher and child about whether the child’s work is correct or meets the required standard which leads to corrective action.  If we separate these elements we end up with an emaciated process that has limited if any value.  The elements work together or not at all.

When developing a set of principles, fundamental starting points, it’s important to understand the end game.  Marking isn’t something designed to keep teachers out of the pub or off the streets, its purpose is to improve children’s learning, progress and ultimately their outcomes.  In a zero sum game it’s also helpful to recognise that even with highly effective marking not every child can be above average, in national tests and examinations, though the more effective your marking is the better the chance of your classes succeeding in the comparable outcomes game.

Marking Must Be Proportionate to Overall Impact  

One of the biggest challenges in schools centres on workload for teachers.  Marking must be sustainable for teachers otherwise it will not be consistently well done but more likely consist of bursts of good practice followed by a significant hiatus or two.  This sustainability is partially covered in the principle that “marking must make children work harder than teachers” but should be seen through two aspects of proportionate impact.  The first is simply that the time spent marking by the teacher is proportionate to the impact on the learning of children. 

The second aspect is associated with the time/benefit costs in terms of what else the teacher could have done As an extreme example spending all you available time marking but never planning lessons or refining pedagogy is likely to be counterproductive.  Marking needs to be balanced against the overall demands on a teacher’s time.

Marking Must Improve Children’s Learning

In case we lose sight of this, improvement is the core reason we mark pupils’ work There are indirect routes to this as mentioned below in terms of planning and reflecting on teaching but there is also marking which requires a direct response from the pupil to develop her/his work to a higher standard.  This can include correcting errors, for example, in computation, spelling, punctuation or grammar or developing greater mastery or excellence.

On occasion greater analysis, at a whole class and individual pupil level, can be used to plan what to reteach to a class or individual pupil.  We’re in the process of implementing this systematically across the three academies within the Trust and more details can be found in Data & Feedback Informed Teaching & Learning.

Marking Must Enable Teachers to Plan Better and Improve Their Practice

The initial part of the marking process is the affirmation or otherwise of what children have or haven’t learnt.  This should form the basis of a teacher’s planning.  A good knowledge of a class’ or pupils’ starting points will ensure teaching is pitched at the right point.  What’s sometimes termed Goldilocks’ level challenge; not too easy, not too hard but just right.  We’re placing a much greater emphasis on assessment of pupils’ prior attainment at the start of each scheme of learning.  Tales from Early Years are emerging of some children who are ready for the Y1 scheme of learning whilst in Year 6 gaps in learning meant that the teacher went back to the Year 5 and then the Year 4 scheme of learning before identifying the appropriate starting point.  Teaching Assistants are now being asked to work with different children on different days to address specific gaps in learning rather than working with “their group” for extended periods of time.

There is a useful point of reflection on whether your marking shows a large number of pupils who have got a particular question or part question consistently wrong or misunderstood a key concept.  How could you approach the teaching of this differently next time?  Asking a colleague is always worthwhile.

It’s worth reading Ross McGill’s (@TeacherToolkit) post on Mark, Plan, Teach

Marking Must Require Children to Work Harder than Teachers

There are too many blog posts with fantastic ideas for reducing marking time to list.  Current favourites include:

  1. Yellow box marking with even better if (ebi) and the number of a success criteria alongside identifying the area of improvement to focus on
  2. A double tick in the margin with what went well (www) and the number(s) of a success criteria alongside identifying the strength of the passage
  3. A tally chart at the bottom of a piece of writing or set of calculations with, “x right and y wrong please find the errors and correct them.”  Pupils can work in pairs to help each other correct their work

The marking always leads to a response from the learner which requires them to think about their work and improve it.  Marking becomes the ultimate means of planning differentiated work for pupils.  If a teacher is spending hours marking to which pupils respond in moments often the original work was too easy.  If your subject is one that can effectively use redrafting of work to improve pupils’ learning try using self and peer assessment with Spoof, Self, Peer, Self, Teacher as the flow.

Marking Must Be Age and Subject Specific

Trying to shoe horn different subjects and children of different ages into a one size fits all policy isn’t helpful.  Repeatedly doing it through twenty years in senior leadership is stupidity.  One of the joys of working in an all age multi academy trust is you rapidly learn that what may be sensible in Sixth Form doesn’t always work as well in Early Years.  The grain size and teaching context of subjects like drama and PE differ so much from English and in turn Mathematics that different marking approaches are required.  There will be an element of the idiosyncratic in many teachers’ approach to marking but there are also fundamental differences between subjects and age groups that have to be allowed for.

A Virtuous Pedagogical Rhythm

Photo Credit: Joshua Davis via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Joshua Davis via Flickr cc

Moving marking from an occupational hazard to part of a virtuous cycle that links to the teacher’s regular rhythm of class room practice, targeted self-development and improved outcomes is becoming increasingly central to our work.  Some if not all of the principles above are just a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.  Sadly, marking has lost the sense of the bleedin’ obvious for too many years with teachers marking for Ofsted, senior and middle leaders, parents, mocksteds, in fact, almost anyone except themselves and their pupil’s.

The monitoring of marking and book scrutiny process has led to a dilemma for many leaders and a mini industry in many schools including across the Trust.  The monitoring of marking or book scrutiny would be well viewed through the first three of the five principles above.

It’s sometimes useful to have a different take, so here are a couple of blog posts David Didau’s (@LearningSpy) which provide an alternative perspective:

Marking and Feedback are Not the Same. 

Could Less Marking Mean More Feedback




5 thoughts on “The Hi-5 of Principled Marking Design


  1. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts October 2015 | high heels and high notes - October 31, 2015

  2. Pingback: Why Workload Working Groups Won’t Work | @LeadingLearner - November 8, 2015

  3. Pingback: Bring Your Best and Your Worst #MarkingScrutiny | @LeadingLearner - February 14, 2016

  4. Pingback: Workload and the Blind Man | @LeadingLearner - March 30, 2016

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