If your marking doesn’t affect pupil progress - stop it!

Teachers are still afraid to bin ‘the purple pen of progress’. But why? Julie Price-Grimshaw has some theories, and some solutions

When I first read the report Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking in March this year I actually cheered. There, in print, was everything I’d been thinking about marking and feedback for the last few years. Since then, however, I’ve found that schools are very wary about the report’s findings and cautious when it comes to taking on board the recommendations. When I ask why, it almost always goes back to an underlying fear of what Ofsted will say if there isn’t enough marking in the books.

Although Ofsted has issued ‘mythbusting’ documents and videos pointing out that it’s all about the impact, there remains a sense of disbelief amongst some. It’s easy to see why: for years we’ve been obsessed with marking, not because it always helps pupils to make progress (sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t), but because it is written proof of how hard we work.

I still see leaders using tick lists to check compliance: has the teacher included a ‘What Went Well’ and an ‘Even Better If’? Has the pupil responded? Are there examples of self assessment and peer assessment?

Let’s face it, it’s quite possible for a teacher to tick every box, but for the marking to have little or no impact on the pupil’s progress. As stated in the report, ‘Too often it is the marking itself which is being monitored and commented on by leaders rather than pupil outcomes and progress as a result of quality feedback.’

The report has a section on ‘What ineffective marking looks like’. There’s reference here to ‘extensive written comments in different colour pens’. I remember a headteacher looking like she was about to spontaneously combust during a work scrutiny because a comment had been written using a red pen instead of ‘the purple pen of progress’. I suggested focusing instead on the comment itself, which was actually quite helpful to the pupil.

Another common practice mentioned in this section of the report is ‘the indication of when verbal feedback has been given by adding ‘VF’ on a pupil’s work’. One school I visited used a stamp that said ‘Verbal feedback given’. A colleague questioned the headteacher about this, asking about the impact of the stamp. ‘Ah well, verbal feedback is very important…’ was the reply. Of course it is – but we’re not talking about the impact of verbal feedback, we’re talking about the impact of the stamp. After much discussion, the headteacher admitted that ‘The stamp isn’t for the pupils. It’s for us, so we know that the teacher has talked to the children’. Really? You need a stamp to tell you that? Isn’t talking to pupils about their work part of teaching? And what does the stamp tell you about the quality of verbal feedback?

There are various versions of ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ and as a basic marking strategy it has a lot going for it: you say something positive, you give some advice. But like everything else, it’s all about quality and impact. Recently I saw the following feedback:

WWW: A lovely story.
EBI: Next time, use some complex punctuation.

Given that it wasn’t really a lovely story (it was unfinished) and the pupil was clearly not familiar with the most basic punctuation, this was not helpful feedback. But it doesn’t stop there. The pupil had to write a response, which went like this:

‘Thank you miss, I am glad you like my story. Next time I will use some complex punctuation.’ However, for all sorts of reasons, she didn’t. It took so long to write the ‘response’ that the time would have been better spent finishing the story. Such exchanges may be cute, but pupil response is ultimately about the impact on subsequent learning.

Some schools advocate ‘marking at the point of learning’ and personally, I’m a big fan. We underestimate the power of immediate feedback and I believe this is where we should be concentrating our efforts. Verbal feedback given in the classroom is often incredibly effective – more so than hours spent marking books.

The report points out that ‘Marking should serve a single purpose – to advance pupil progress and outcomes’ and states that ‘if the hours spent do not have the commensurate impact on pupil progress, stop it.’

I could not have put it better myself.

About the author

Julie Price Grimshaw is a teacher, teacher trainer, and education consultant (selfpropelledlearning.co.uk). She has been involved in school inspections since 2001.

Pie Corbett