Wholesome Leadership Preview Chapter 7: Healthy Accountability

As part of this series of short posts to introduce my book, Wholesome Leadership, today I’m sharing a preview of Chapter 7:  Healthy Accountability.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

This chapter sits in the second section of the book which is focused on the ‘head’ of leadership, part of the H4 Leadership Model which captures the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders. It follows on from previous posts I’ve written including Chapter 6 – ‘Strategic School Improvement’.

H4 Leadership Model: ‘The Heart, Head, Hands & Health of School Leadership…

Within the chapter, I identify three challenges for school leaders

  1. Taking the ‘fear’ out of the ‘challenge’, creating the right conditions in our school for healthy accountability. I use Mary Myatt’s concept of ‘High Challenge; Low Threat’ as a model for thinking about how we can keep the stakes low but the challenge high within schools.
  2. Developing effective processes for school improvement that are used consistently as part of an ongoing cycle. The chapter shares some approaches to processes such as appraisal, learning walks and the use of data.
  3. Managing external accountability with confidence; staying in control of inspection. I discuss how we can stay in control of external processes such as OFSTED and also offer some suggestions as to how OFSTED might further reform in the future.

For some more thoughts on developing healthier approaches to accountability in schools, I interview Headteacher, Michael Tidd, well known for his expert views and opinion on primary curriculum and assessment. Michael offers his typical blend of pragmatic wisdom and informed opinion on the challenges.

Here is a summary of the chapter in one page, as designed by the brilliant Oliver Caviglioli.


Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 



Wholesome Leadership Preview Chapter 6: Strategic School Improvement & Research

As part of this series of short posts to introduce my book, Wholesome Leadership, today I’m sharing a preview of Chapter 6:  Strategic School Improvement.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

This chapter sits in the second section of the book which is focused on the ‘head’ of leadership, part of the H4 Leadership Model which captures the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders. It follows on from previous posts I’ve written about the heart of leadership such as ‘Finding your leadership voice’ and Building an Ethos and Professional Culture.

H4 Leadership Model: ‘The Heart, Head, Hands & Health of School Leadership…

Within the chapter, I focus on the importance of building a sensible school improvement strategic and present some ideas and models around how school improvement can be achieved. One of these is the ‘vital organs of school improvement’ – a simple way of looking at how to tackle the nuts and bolts of improving a school.

The chapter also looks at how research can be used more effectively to support school improvement. When I look back at the initiatives we were running in schools 10 years ago, I cringe at how we accepted them so willingly because they sounded like a good idea or perhaps we just had a hunch they were right. Thankfully now, there is a much better conversation taking place around the use of research in schools and I share some thoughts and ideas around how we might engage better in this.

The chapter features two interviews, the first with Sir David Carter, National Schools commissioner who I talk to about his model of school improvement: The 4 Stages of Improving a School. I first heard Sir David talk about this model in 2016 at the Education Festival and find his language a refreshing alternative to the OFSTED accountability labels that dominate too much of the discussion about school improvement across the country.

In the second interview, I talk with Clare Sealy about the use of research to support school improvement. As Headteacher of St Matthias Primary School in Tower Hamlets, Clare has become well-known within the research community in England for the application of research and cognitive science into practice within her school. I enjoyed questioning her about her journey over the last few years and what she has learned.

Here’s a summary of Chapter 6 on a page:

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

Wholesome Leadership Preview Chapter 5: Creating a Vision & Implementing Change…

Today, as part of this series of short posts to introduce Wholesome Leadership, I’m sharing a preview of Chapter 5: Creating a Vision & Implementing Change.

This chapter sits in the first section of the book which is focused on the ‘heart’ of leadership, part of the H4 Leadership Model which captures the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders. It follows on from previous chapters about the ‘heart’ of school leadership including ‘Finding your leadership voice’ and Building an Ethos and Professional Culture.

Stephen Covey tells us that everything is created twice: once as an idea or vision and the second as an actualisation, where a vision becomes reality. The chapter is split into two parts, to deal with both the first creation of developing a vision for change and the second creation of bringing this change to life through careful implementation. I use some of Simon Sinek’s ideas in the first part which focus more on ‘why’ we exist before deciding what we do. In the second part, we look more at the importance of implementation – something that is often overlooked in schools in my experience.

‘Vision without implementation is hallucination.’

Thomas Edison

Within the chapter, I interview Peter Ford who worked with the leadership team when I first took on the Headship at Simon de Senlis to help us create our vision for improving the school. There some explanations of the processes that we used such as appreciative enquiry and consultation.

Here is the chapter summarised in a page.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

Wholesome Leadership Preview Chapter 4: Building Ethos & Professional Culture:

Today, as part of this series of short posts to introduce my book, Wholesome Leadership, I’m sharing a preview of Chapter 4: ‘Building Ethos & Professional Culture.

This chapter sits in the first section of the book which is focused on the ‘heart’ of leadership, part of the H4 Leadership Model which captures the heart, head, hands and health of school leaders. It follows on from yesterday’s post about ‘Finding your leadership voice’. 

H4 Leadership Model: ‘The Heart, Head, Hands & Health of School Leadership…

Building Ethos and Professional Culture…

Important things in any school are its ethos and professional culture. Together, they affect the mood, performance and commitment of every individual; they are the ‘soil’ in which all other things grow.

‘Leaders Make the Weather’

Vic Goddard

The chapter unpicks the definitions of ethos and culture and suggests ways that we can cultivate the right ‘conditions’ within a school. It explores some of the problems that exist with cultures based solely on ‘compliance and consistency’ where checklists and minimum expectations rule.

Within the Chapter, I interview Simon Smith, Principal of East Whitby Primary School. I have followed Simon’s blog with interest since he took up Headship at the school in 2015 and have always enjoyed the authenticity with which he writes about leading a school. He talks eloquently and with passion about ethos as ‘the glue’ in his school.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

Wholesome Leadership Preview Chapter 3: Finding your Leadership Voice

Having yesterday introduced Wholesome Leadership and the H4 Leadership Model which contains the Heart, Head, Hands and Health of school leadership. Today, I’m sharing a overview of Chapter 3 – ‘Finding your leadership voice’.

The first section of the book focuses on the ‘Heart’ of Wholesome Leadership and consists of  three chapters. I describe the heart of school leadership as follows:

Knowing what you stand for. Believing in what you do and who you are. Creating the right ethos and professional culture and leading careful change effectively.

The premise of Chapter 3 is that before we start managing or leading others, we need to first develop ourselves. In it, I talk about the challenge of working out who you are as a leader – something that can often be left to chance in schools.

People can’t live with change if there’s not a changeless core inside them.  The key to the ability to change is a changeless sense of who you are, what you are about and what you value. 

Stephen Covey

Within the chapter, I interview Peter Hall-Jones. Peter was the first Headteacher I ever worked for on my first teaching practice over 20 years ago. He has continued to challenge and inspire me over this time. Peter helped me to work out what my beliefs and values around school leadership are and now works with schools and businesses across the world doing similar work.

This is probably also a good time to introduce Oliver Caviglioli:  illustrator, designer, former special school Headteacher and all-round ‘good egg’. I was privileged to have Oliver lead on the design of the book and draw the illustrations and visuals. One of the many brilliant contributions that Oliver made to Wholesome Leadership was a simple preview to capture the essence of each chapter.

Here’s Chapter 3 in one page:

In tomorrow’s preview, I’ll share the next chapter in the ‘Heart’ of school leadership: Culture and Ethos.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

Introducing Wholesome Leadership Previews…

This Easter, I’m publishing a book. My first/last/only? Who knows…

It’s almost exactly 12 months ago since I first spoke to Alex Sharatt of John Catt Educational about writing a book. Since then, I’ve been engaged in the most interesting, tortuous and self-conscious process of my life.

After a year of writing through the late evenings, early mornings, weekends and holidays, I sent almost 100,000 words to the publisher last week. Apparently by May 2018, Wholesome Leadership will be in print.

It feels a bit odd. Writing a book has been both exciting and nerve wracking, at least for me. And having invested a year writing, I’d love for people to read it!

‘Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.’

John Wesley

Wholesome Leadership

The premise of Wholesome Leadership is simple: that we need more good people to become (and remain) school leaders. My one hope for the book is that it will be helpful in the daily lives of those who take on responsibility for leading and managing a school.

But school leadership is complex and the challenges in education cannot be overcome through quick-fixes or over-simplified answers. So to organise the many threads of leadership, I have developed the ‘H4 Leadership Model’ to represent the Heart, Head, Hands & Health of school leaders. Each of these four domains is important; to neglect one is to neglect the whole.

Within Wholesome Leadership, three chapters are devoted to each of these areas. Every chapter contains a discussion of some of the challenges from my own experience alongside research, advice and suggestions as well as a guest contributor.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

L. Mencken

H4 Leadership Model: ‘The Heart, Head, Hands & Health of School Leadership…

Expert Interviews

Having decided to write about a breadth of issues, I quickly realised that I would need to bring in some expert help on different subjects. And so within the book, I am delighted to include 14 expert interviews with some of my educational heroes – some who I have been privileged to work with, others who I have been influenced and inspired by.

This image is taken from the contents page which shows the 3 different chapters in each of the 4 domains within Wholesome Leadership. It also shows the interviewees on the right hand side.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll preview each of the chapters with an overview of the main thrust and a snippet of an interview.

Wholesome Leadership is now on sale for pre-order and will be published around the 22nd of May 2018. You can read some of the early reviews or find out how to order here –  www.wholesomeleadershipbook.com 

Why Joining a MAT was like getting married again…

Whether we like it or not, it appears that more and more schools will become ‘married’ into a Multi Academy Trust in the years ahead; leaving behind their relative independence (and the varying quality of parenting provided by different Local Authorities) in order to enter into an often polygamous lifelong partnership with other schools.  Like eternal bachelors, many are clinging on to their independence, hoping  that it will ‘never happen to them’ but I think it’s inevitable that as time passes, the benefits of shacking up together (or perhaps more significantly, the risks of staying single) will become more substantial and tip more and more schools this way.

The Early Days…

I remember clearly the moment I first set eyes on NPAT in 2012, around the time that I was appointed Head at Simon de Senlis.  I read the story of five schools in Northampton in the local press that had started working together to form a MAT as equal partners and was inspired by the ambition and drive of the partnership.

These were all great schools, led by the types of go-getter Heads that I aspired (and still aspire) to be. In those early days, the MAT scene was still relatively uncharted territory and NPAT was a really trailblazing partnership – built fundamentally on the simplicity of high quality teaching and leadership with a very child-centred ethos and a serious commitment to sport and the arts.

Before too long, we had entered into conversations about some partnership working and were quickly involved in various different school improvement projects together which resulted in some positive work in raising standards across the schools.  This ‘friends with benefits’ stage made a real impact on all our schools, helping us at Simon de Senlis to move from the challenges of Requires Improvement through a good OFSTED inspection with the challenge of the MAT noted as part of the outstanding judgement for Leadership and Management.  Of course the relationship between schools is not a friendship, it is a very committed approach around professional challenge and support.

Getting Serious

I remember clearly the awkward conversation about ‘who asks who’ in these situations with two of the other Headteachers and Directors as it became inevitable that we should solidify the partnership by joining the trust.  I also remember questioning with Governors and Directors whether we needed to ‘get married’ in order for us to work collaboratively, or whether we couldn’t just join the partnership outside of the MAT and carry on all the good stuff without legally becoming one.  As time progressed though, it became clear that the legally binding bit was the right call, cementing the many commitments that we believed in such as our mantra, ‘My school is your school; your children are our children’, and the sense of shared ownership that we all felt for each other’s schools at times like inspection or on results day.

Of course, at this stage in any relationship, there comes the inevitable power struggle, only in this relationship it was more about positions on the board and whether we had to fall in line with particular curriculum approaches rather than creating joint bank accounts and whether or not it’s still ok to play football on a Sunday.  There are many important questions that must be asked and answered before making that commitment and we learned a lot about being completely honest and candid with each other at this stage.

Tying the knot

In April 2015, we officially converted to become part of NPAT with a very unceremonious occasion as, somewhere in Whitehall, official paperwork was updated and filed whilst the 420 children in a Northampton suburb continued learning as normal.  If I must continue the metaphor, it was very much the low key registry office with witnesses only and then back to work in the afternoon with no honeymoon as we simply couldn’t afford the time off work!

Then came the relief that all the decision making, consultation and paperwork that came from academisation alongside the everyday job of leading a school through a Requires Improvement cycle was finally over and we had a clear road ahead.  Of course, this void was soon filled with the daily tsunami of different challenges that appear in schools every day.

Keeping the magic alive…

As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is the beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success,” and this is now the challenge for schools in MATs as we all seek to keep our individuality and individual school ethos on one hand whilst finding common ground and adopting shared approaches where they make sense.  The trust has now grown to become 8 schools including 3 Special Units with all schools rated either good or outstanding by OFSTED.  We have always tried to keep an unwavering focus around teaching, learning and outcomes but with over 3,000 children and around 500 staff based across ten sites, it’s hard. As much as we wanted to avoid becoming tied up the issues that come with being a MAT such as red tape, policy development HR strategy plans and endless risk management, these are all important and necessary parts of running a decent size organisation.

An annual reminder of ‘why we did it’ is the MAT wide Shakespeare project which we’ve run in partnership with the Royal Shakepseare Company for the last 3 years.  This year, over 3000 children from Reception to Year 6 have been engaged in developing speech, language and an appreciation of difficult texts through ‘Hamlet’ with some incredible outcomes.  The trust’s motto is ‘Extraordinary Children; Extraordinary Things’ and I think it’s OK from time to time to appreciate the special things that take place every day across our schools.

Data Dashboards across the MAT…

I’ve had quite a bit of interest in the assessment and analytics development that we’ve been working on as a trust in the last few weeks so I thought I’d share some of our thinking along with some insights into how we’ve developed consistent summative assessment processes across our trust of 8 primary schools. I was also supposed to make a presentation at the BETT Show this week sharing the analytics tools we’ve developed but couldn’t make it so instead I’ll share some thoughts here.

Trust-Wide Assessment

One of my responsibilities across Northampton Primary Academy Trust is to develop our approaches to assessment in a world without levels. A big part of NPAT’s development is to constantly look at where we standardise practices and where we leave approaches down to individual schools and teachers. One area that made a lot of sense for us to standardise was our summative assessment processes and over the last three years we’ve been working on the what, why, when and how of assessment.

Standardised tests

Like many others, we’ve come around to the view that standardised tests across schools are a really important part of our internal assessment system.  There are different standardised tests out there and we use PIRA and PUMA for Reading and Maths respectively. Although ‘testing’ can get a bad press, we see a number of real benefits including the following:

  • They are more reliable than a teacher assessment grade in comparing attainment.
  • They take much less curriculum time than other forms of ‘Teacher Assessment’ or tests – the ones we use take 45 minutes each.
  • The workload associated with standardised tests is much less than other lengthy processes we’ve experienced involving evidence gathering or maintaining tracking systems with large amounts of objectives.

On the subject of standardised testing, James Pemroke’s post is well worth a read here.

If there is a question around tests such as PIRA and PUMA, it’s around validity and how relevant the information is that you get from them in relation to say the new end of KS2 tests. A specific example here is that there is almost no arithmetic in the PUMA tests in comparison to the new requirements at the end of KS2. But where the outputs are useful is as a predictor of what outcome children are likely to achieve at the end of Year 6 and thankfully some early correlation work now exists such as this from Tyrone Samuel from Ark Schools which we can build on.  Having a sense of how our children are performing in relation to the rest of the country is a really useful thing.

Stop Chasing Shadows

Getting good standardised attainment data from across different classes and schools is really helpful when identifying what the current strengths and weakness exist in the school – particular in comparison to others. By being able to see data such as comparative average scores, we can flag up where there are potential strengths and weaknesses more accurately across KS2 and crucially, before children get to Year 6.

Having an earlier radar on standards can help us to focus on the live issues in the school rather than being duped into a game of chasing shadows responding to what RAISE/ASP or FFT says about the children that left months before. It also gives us the opportunity to intervene earlier when necessary in KS2 which I hope can mean that there is less clamour in Year 6 as cohorts progress through.

How does it work?

Very simply, we have identified 3 standardised assessment points across the year (AP1, AP2 and AP3). These are in December, March and June. For children in Years 3-5, they complete PIRA and PUMA tests at this time. Children in Year 6 complete the 2016 SATs paper at AP1, 2017 SATs paper at AP2 and then the real thing in May. This happens consistently in all our schools at these times.

Collecting and Cleansing Data

Once tests are marked, teachers input the results into our MIS system (SIMS) and then this data is checked centrally to ensure that it is complete and in the right format. There is a lot of data ‘cleansing’ to do at this point in the process where data needs reformatting, double checking and testing. This is a really important stage and has required us to invest in staffing to manage the process as well as solving technical challenges so that the data manager has access to each school’s MIS remotely.

Once the data is in SIMS is complete, it is then sucked up using a ‘data agent’ and all the information held in the different schools is then stored centrally in a data warehouse. This part is really clever; way beyond my skill set and we’ve worked with Matt from Coscole Ltd. who does this work across our trust.

Once the data is in the warehouse, it can then be used for different purposes. This is part of our mantra to ‘collect once, use many times’.

Trust-Wide Analysis

Power BI (again customised and hosted through Coscole Ltd.) then provides the ‘front end’ which is the bit that school staff can engage with. It’s a part of our Office 365 dashboard which all staff already have access to and so it doesn’t require any additional login.

The following three screens are dashboard extracts from our system which allow us to compare attainment from standardised tests across schools in the trust. There are a range of filters you can tinker with to then view these same analytics by either school, contextual group etc.

Please note that the images here are from a version of our data in which all names of schools and individuals have been changed and results randomised so that no-one and no school can be identified.

This is a summary dashboard showing Reading and Maths headline data across all schools (light blue is Reading and black is Maths). You can view this by different year groups or altogether. In this screen, we are viewing Year 3 data.
This dashboard shows the current Year 6 reading data at December for a previous year’s SATs test across all trust schools. The data here indicates that 65% have achieved 100+ and 59% of FSM6 children have achieved 100+. There is also analysis by gender, SEND and PP on the right hand side.
This dashboard shows Maths average data for all Year 3 classes across the trust. It displays the same breakdown as the Reading dashboard.

This final screen is a scatterplot matching prior attainment (1 = Low, 2 = Middle, 3 = High, 0 = No Data) against current test scores. This is a much more visual way of comparing these two fields than looking down a spreadsheet. The same comparisons can be made with targets.

In this dashboard, the vertical axis separates the children by their prior attainment and the horizontal axis plots their average standardised score according to PIRA/PUMA (or Y6 test).

There’s lots more I could write about assessment (who knows I might have a chapter in an upcoming book?) but that’s all for now and hopefully enough to get a taster.

We’re hoping to host a visit to the trust later in the Spring term where anyone interested can find out more about how the data analysis works.

I’d be interested in any comments, suggestions for improvements and to know what other trusts or groups of schools are doing in this area around data.




Early in my teaching career, I started to get annoyed by those people in the staff room who would declare that they’d seen everything in education come round before. You know the ones? Where every new development in school gets met with a knowing nod and a declaration that it’s just one big circle and everything comes back into fashion?

I mean there I would be, just trying to  enthusiastically deliver the latest initiative that would revolutionise the teaching of someone who’d been doing it for 20 years longer than me, and there they were, folding their arms and telling me they’d seen it all before.

Turns out they were mostly right.


If you’ve ever tried to play one of those car games in the arcade, you’ll know the feeling well. You try to turn left but you do it so hard that before you know it you’re out of control and have crashed into the barrier on the other side.  And scarred by that experience you quickly pull the wheel too vigorously in the other direction and bang, you’ve hit the barrier you were trying to avoid in the first place.

I trained in the late 90s and was a child of the literacy and numeracy strategies. Clear, rigorous, primary, instruction. Crisp four part lessons. 8-10 minute plenaries only. Punctuated with mini-plenaries.  Mechanical coverage was ensured.

Then came the noughties; the lure of learning styles, the freedom of the creative curriculum. Life-skills. Topic work. Curriculum freedoms (remember those?). After all, what does it matter what we do in school when the skills needed for future jobs haven’t been dreamed about yet and who needs handwriting or spelling when we’ve got laptops and spell checker (and they only count for a handful of marks on the SATs test)?

And now the teenies and social media has brought all extremes together in a single timeline that can persuade, embarrass, divide, unify and both create and dispel edu-myths alike. 

Marking. Too much marking. No marking.

Curriculum in balance. Curriculum doesn’t matter. Curriculum matters.

What’s technology? Use technology. Avoid technology.

Can we prevent ourselves from over-steering; from pulling the wheel down too hard for fear of crashing off in one direction only to find ourselves so far off the track on the other? Can we avoid lurching from initiative to counter-initiative, ignoring the nuance and context in the bright lights of the ‘next thing’.

Can complex problems be solved with simple solutions?

Does educational extremism ever solve anything?

Over-steer is ‘a thing’.

Let’s keep the balance.


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 https://mrthorntonteach.com/2016/04/08/marking-crib-sheet/


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. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/EEF_Marking_Review_April_2016.pdf

OFSTED ‘Mythbusting’ Document, August 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-from-september-2015/ofsted-inspections-mythbusting

Michael Tidd, ‘A Policy for Feedback not Marking’. https://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/a-policy-for-feedback-not-marking/

Clare Sealy, Why my school banned marking and the policy that replaced it. https://www.thirdspacelearning.com/blog/2017/confessions-of-a-primary-headteacher-why-my-school-banned-marking 

Joe Kirby, ‘Marking is a Hornet’. https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/marking-is-a-hornet/ 

Mr Thornton, ‘Marking Crib Sheet.‘ https://mrthorntonteach.com/2016/04/08/marking-crib-sheet/

Department for Education, Teacher Workload: Marking Policy Review Group. https://www.gov.uk/government/groups/teacher-workload-marking-policy-review-group

NCETM Primary Marking Guidance  https://www.ncetm.org.uk/files/33333022/NCETM+Primary+Marking+Guidance+April+2016.pdf