Stopping the Marking Runaway Train…

For the last six months, like many schools, we have been reviewing our approaches  to feedback and marking and this September we’ll be starting term with a revised approach. We hope that this will have a more positive impact on learning whilst reducing the workload of teachers in the school.

Having been through this process, here are 10 things that I know or think about marking and feedback in no particular order:

  1. Although it is widely talked about that feedback has the biggest effect size on children’s learning, in 38% of cases feedback has shown to have a negative effect on learning (Kluger & Denisi – 1996).  Therefore, we should be really thoughtful in the future about the models of feedback that we use in school.
  2. Feedback can be more effective when it used sparingly rather than children being overloaded with feedback.
  3. Unless children are given time and an opportunity to respond to feedback, it’s pointless.
  4. Misconceptions and careless errors are separate things and should be marked or fed back on using different strategies.
  5. There is lots that is known about marking and feedback that we probably don’t know enough about in schools. Documents such as those from the EEF and Teacher Workload ‘Marking Policy Review Group’ are really important but, due to time pressures, many teaching staff are unlikely to have read them.
  6. Despite what I’ve said in point 5, there is not enough evidence around the effectiveness of marking to be sure of much really and so we should hold on to our ideas and beliefs lightly as more research takes place into this.
  7. When you talk to teachers or read what they write on twitter, they generally say that they predominately mark for book scrutinies and OFSTED rather than for any real effect on learning.
  8. There are crystal clear messages from OFSTED that there is no requirement for any specific type or frequency of marking and that we do not need to spend time creating evidence of verbal feedback which is simply a part of teaching and can be seen in almost any lesson.
  9. There are more effective ways of giving feedback to children than through written comments such as verbal feedback or responsive teaching (read: teaching).
  10. It is still impossible to write a feedback or marking policy without quoting Dylan WiIiam.

‘If there’s a single principle teachers need to digest about classroom feedback, it’s this: The only thing that matters is what students do with it. No matter how well the feedback is designed, if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time.’

Dylan Wiliam

How did we get into this mess?

Throughout the last 6 months, I’ve reflected a lot on how we have got to this point on marking nationally, not for the purposes of attributing blame but through genuine interest into how a mix of bright ideas, poor evidence and the pressure of accountability can quickly become runaway trains like marking approaches have become across the country or ‘hornets’ ( to quote Joe Kirby’s excellent blog).

I think that there are  two key misunderstandings we have made as a profession:

  1. ‘Feedback’ has been interpreted to mean ‘marking’.
  2. ‘Responding to marking’ has been interpreted to mean ‘children writing comments in response to marking’ rather than children putting the feedback they receive into practice in their future work.

At the heart of all this lies one of the biggest problems for all of us involved in education: we can’t see learning. Because we can’t see learning happening, we often focus on the visible things that we associate with good learning or ‘proxies for learning’ (Read more about Rob Coe’s ‘poor proxies for learning’ here) . Focusing on the visible and the ‘easy measurables’ makes the job of monitoring easy but potentially means we value the wrong things; I think that marking falls into this category. Far more valuable than marking is the verbal feedback that takes place in every lesson up and down the country every day but will never (or should ever) be seen in a book scrutiny. The irony is that although marking is a visible end-product, the process of marking is often invisible with teachers spending hours, often at home, in the evening wading through piles of books.

When I asked on twitter what teachers’ perspectives were of who was responsible, I was interested in the response that came back. It would seem that the mythbusting messaging from OFSTED is cutting into our perceptions and really shifts the onus onto us as school leaders to grab a hold of this issue where it exists and help staff get a handle on marking.

Naturally, Sean Harford (National Director of OFSTED) was keen for us to move on from the blame game and to focus on how to fix it rather than cause. Quite right Sean – I’d say exactly the same. Let’s crack on!

The opportunity cost of marking policies in schools is huge and we should embrace the current opportunity for change with both hands.  As an ex-year 6 teacher who has spent thousands of hours of my life marking hundreds of children’s books (many before the days of PPA time) this development is both liberating and wildly frustrating.  Why has it taken us until 2016 to come to this conclusion?  What could I have done instead with all those hours of my life? And why as a leader did I not become wiser to this sooner so I could have saved my staff all these hours and let them focus on things that matter more?

I’ll duly hold my hand up and say that our staff have been marking too much in recent years. Although we felt we had a workload-friendly approach (teachers were not expected to provide written feedback in core subjects more than once a week), the reality was that the staff were doing much more and there are far more useful things they can be doing with their valuable time.

The process of changing marking approaches…

Marking is such an ingrained habit for teachers and so we have taken time and been cautious with this change not to throw out processes that, on reflection, we still feel are valuable and important. The following process was led brilliantly by one of our Assistant Heads and I take no credit for it.

  1. Reading and Research – At this stage, a handful of us were reading about different approaches to marking and finding out what the approach of other schools is and how they are (or aren’t) changing these. As part of this process, a survey was also carried out with teachers in our school to find out how much time they were spending on marking and also to understand their perceptions of what was more and less useful. It’s great to be able to read about other schools’ experiences as they’ve changed their processes too and learn from their experiences; the early bird may catch the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.As usual, Michael Tidd’s posts are invaluable and this one in particular was very influential in us understanding the ‘diminishing returns of marking’ amongst other things.
  2. Working Group Trials and Pilots – A working group was set up consisting of 6 teaching staff who met and trialled different approaches including whole-class feedback, marking crib-sheets keeping tabs on how long processes were taking and what effect they felt this was having on learning.
  3. Presenting Ideas to Staff – At a staff meeting, the rationale for change was made alongside some suggested practices for staff to use. This was a really important point for me – you can’t pull the carpet from under people’s feet unless you can offer answers to what should happen in its place.
  4. Whole Staff Road Test – At this stage, we had outlines for practices which had been tested in some classes and in other schools and all staff were told that there was no expectation for more than one written comment in children’s books throughout the half term. We collected feedback at staff meetings throughout these 7 weeks and staff were great at emailing round their thoughts – it was great to hear how much time they’d saved and also how they felt they were able to spend more time planning responsive teaching rather than working through the process of documenting it in individual books.
  5. Feedback – At the end of the Summer Term, we spent a staff meeting with staff feeding back on how the process had been and what their thoughts were about how we should adapt the process further for September. My Assistant Head then did the policy work which we will present back to staff at the beginning of term.
  6. Implementation – We already know that staff have found it hard to kick the habit and that feelings of guilt still exist because they are not spending time every evening putting written comments in books. Like all habits, it will take time and so we will keep working on this to make sure that teachers can adapt to the change.

Our revised Feedback Policy

Some key points from our revised approach are as follows:

  • Our policy is for Feedback rather than Marking and pays attention to the important business of verbal feedback to children and responsive teaching first and foremost.
  • There is no requirement for staff to evidence ‘verbal feedback’. Verbal feedback is an integral part of teaching and learning which can be observed taking place in almost every lesson.
  • Marking crib sheets such as the one below are now commonly used to support whole-class-feedback and inform ‘responsive teaching’. The one below is from Mr Thornton’s blog – we have adapted similar versions which staff can use either as paper copies or are more often using online versions in our OneNote planning documents.
This example is taken from Mr Thornton’s blog at


Things I think are still worth thinking about with marking and feedback…

  • The differences in successful marking approaches between different subjects or age ranges are significant and therefore a blanket approach clearly isn’t appropriate. Even the subtle differences between year groups are worth discussing and being specific on – the difference between the ability of children in Year 1 and 2 for example to respond to written feedback is considerable.
  • Where we hear about ‘no more marking’ approaches, I hope that this isn’t interpreted as ‘no more looking at children’s work on a daily basis’ approach. My teachers know their children inside out – partly due to the attention they pay to reading their work. Although I understand that at a secondary level, there may be challenges over reading through the books of the hundreds of different, this is not the case in primary and it’s reasonable to think that primary teachers will still read through children’s work throughout the week to keep that personal.

Our draft marking policy is available at the link below. It may change again slightly after we’ve been through it with staff at the training days ahead. If you’re ahead of us on the journey, I’d love to hear your feedback or critique. If you haven’t yet stopped the marking runaway train in your school, I hope that this post might be helpful to you.

Simon de Senlis Draft Marking Policy September 2017 Download

References – All these posts or documents were really influential in our policy change.  Thank you to everyone who was involved in writing or contributing to them!

Education Endowment Fund Marking Review, ‘A Marked Improvement’, April 2016.

OFSTED ‘Mythbusting’ Document, August 2016.

Michael Tidd, ‘A Policy for Feedback not Marking’.

Clare Sealy, Why my school banned marking and the policy that replaced it. 

Joe Kirby, ‘Marking is a Hornet’. 

Mr Thornton, ‘Marking Crib Sheet.‘

Department for Education, Teacher Workload: Marking Policy Review Group.

NCETM Primary Marking Guidance