As the saying goes, “If I had a pound for every policy I’ve written over the years I would have retired ages ago.” However, if I had a pound for every policy which has had a huge positive impact on children’s life chances or reducing teachers’ workload I may be a bit more impoverished.
Organisations like schools need policies. Some are agreements about a way of working when things get a bit difficult; capability, disciplinary and grievance policies need to be thought through and agreed in advance. Others help produce a bottom line of acceptable practice in terms of Safeguarding, Behaviour or Health & Safety. Then there are the dreaded ones, the workload multipliers, often linked to assessment or marking. We do need to mark pupils’ work; the challenge is how, how much and to what extent should an individual teacher decide versus policy?
Policies are great on paper but getting them to work in the class room can be problematic. No two teachers think and teach exactly alike and as for the response of a class of thirty pupils and how they will respond on different days it’s probably best not to go there. Policy implementation is a real challenge; even when the launch is smooth and successful there is a need to revisit, refine and reconsider. Too often policies are launched and then another policy is launched and then another policy is launched …. time to focus, train and develop the policy is simply not given; consequently moving the words from the page into embedded practice doesn’t happen.
We are still looking at our Marking Policy. We seem to have been doing it for ever, paralysed by indecision about what best to do next, and so we decided to get the best practice and use it to write policy. In the two primary academies, and shortly at St. Mary’s, teachers were asked to bring their best and worst examples of marking along to a meeting. It’s a different type of marking scrutiny. Looking at a small teacher selected sample of best practice you lower the emotional risk. However, the worry of whether your colleagues will agree with your thoughts on best practice and the requirement to bring your worst marking and show it off in public acts as a rather weighty counterbalance.
Looking at it simplistically, if a teacher marks six books to bring along and hasn’t marked any other book all year this process will not reveal it. In the short term, this approach won’t ensure marking is of the quality required; this kind of leadership approach is a long term, slow burn approach to school improvement. It’s important to understand the policy to practice versus practice to policy approaches.
From Policy to Practice or Practice to Policy
Moving from policy to practice is about setting the expectation, monitoring and ensuring compliance. In some life and death or high risk activities this is a sound approach. As much as it might pain some of us to admit it, marking books is probably neither a matter of life and death nor a high risk activity. Writing policy on the basis of the best observable practice, that is, practice which has a positive impact on pupil’s learning, is about identifying sustainable, real World exemplary practice and helping all teachers consistently make similar judgements; it’s about wisdom building.
Increasing the ability of each teacher to use good professional judgement to decide what and how to mark, alongside other beneficial activities including lesson planning, developing schemes of learning or working on a particular aspect of your practice, is at the core of the wisdom building. The process is slower but potentially goes deeper and has a long lasting impact on practice. The strength of any process like this is the dialogue which is developed.
Leaders can’t sit on their hands in a practice to policy approach; bringing a research perspective and asking searching questions are two important aspects of a leader’s contribution to the process. In Four Aces for Improving the Quality of Teaching #rEdScot I spoke about research as “the informed conscience of a restless profession which wants to know how it can get better. Research helps prevent the profession from becoming insular or complacent, there’s always more to learn.” Informing our own experience and practice with research adds to our depth of understanding as we look to limit marking to that which will have impact on pupils learning; be worth the time invested.
Guiding the discussion so people think deeply about what they are doing; getting people to challenge their own practice affirming what is useful and identifying what is unnecessary requires a coaching style approach. Listening to staff talk and looking at the evidence has led to us:
- Questioning the number of codes we use to correct literacy errors, many were never used, and others used inconsistently
- Excessive photographing and sticking evidence in books, looked pretty but didn’t aid learning as opposed to a single picture annotated by the child
- Comments with no response for the pupil because the teacher thought that they hadn’t done enough marking
- Numbered success criteria and yellow box marking versus no success criteria or the teacher rewriting the whole of the success criteria multiple times across a whole class set of books
The practice into policy approach seems a sensible idea but whether it will have the desired impact only time will tell. I bet the on-going conversations and examples of the best and worst practice is likely to have a greater impact than simply more policy writing.
Footnote: The term marking I use to describe 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. There is more information in the post The Hi-5 of Principled Marking Design. Other people define marking differently.