Marking: Cutting workload by 75 per cent

Written by: Imogen Rowley | Published:
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Barr Beacon School has managed to cut teachers’ marking workload by 75 per cent. Imogen Rowley looks at how they did it...

Marking is an essential part of teaching and assessment, but it adds hours to teachers’ already crippling workloads.

Barr Beacon School in Walsall, rated outstanding by Ofsted, cut teachers’ marking time to less than an hour a day by banning detailed written comments and improving the way staff give feedback to pupils. So, how did they do it and what lessons can we learn?

Review your current practices

As part of a wider campaign to tackle workload in his school, deputy headteacher David Lowbridge-Ellis sat down with staff to find out how they were marking and how long they were spending on it.

A 2014 Ofsted inspection had found that marking was inconsistent across the school and, as a result, teachers were trying to force their marking to look the same across every subject. This was counterproductive. Mr Lowbridge-Ellis decided to create a “marking vacuum” – teachers could mark how they like and he’d be there to collect good practice to inform his wider marking policy going forwards.

Develop a new approach

Drawing on the learnings from the Department for Education’s Workload Challenge marking policy review group (DfE, 2016), the school decided to distil their feedback approach into one core principle – at any time, pupils should be able to answer two questions:

  1. What are you doing well in this subject?
  2. What do you need to do to improve?

If pupils could answer these questions accurately, using details specific to the subject, then the school could be confident that pupils were receiving effective feedback. There is no need for written comments or “ticking and flicking” for the sake of it.

Make the change

Mr Lowbridge-Ellis ran whole-school CPD to train staff in the new approach and to share his findings, and consulted with parents to get their buy-in. Teachers are now not afraid to build in dedicated lesson time, or even entire lessons, for feedback. Pupils work from prompt sheets, mark the work of their peers, and work through sample questions as a class to constantly and consistently check their progress in the subject and the areas where they require improvement. All feedback is subject-specific, and pupils work just as hard as their teachers.

Some teachers were initially hesitant about spending lesson time on feedback, because they felt that it was preventing pupils from learning something new. To overcome this perception, Mr Lowbridge-Ellis removed grades from lesson observations and reminded teachers that consolidating information and filling in learning gaps from previous lessons was just as valuable. Teachers felt less pressure to put on a show, and were no longer afraid to dedicate lesson time to feedback.

How to make this work for your school

First, staff should constantly question why they are marking something, and always consider alternative approaches to written comments as a way of delivering feedback. If teachers are marking for any other purpose than to improve pupils’ learning – don’t.

Staff must know what effective feedback looks like, and your marking policy will need to allow for subject-specific variation.

For instance, in maths, pupils can correct much of their own work in class, while in English, staff might mark only significant pieces of writing which pupils can then review in depth in class later on.

You will also need someone to drive the change and to be passionate about both improving teachers’ workload and the quality of student feedback. Appoint a member of the senior leadership team to oversee the marking overhaul, from initial rollout and getting staff on-board, to monitoring and maintaining good practice on an on-going basis.

Positive outcomes

Moving away from written marking has had an overwhelming impact on the work/life balance of teachers at Barr Beacon School. The school is doing a quarter of the marking it was doing a year ago, which has meant that teachers not only have more personal time, but also more time to spend on innovative and creative lesson planning.

Instigating new processes can require a significant amount of buy-in from staff, pupils and parents, but by making the change, teachers at Barr Beacon have been able to drastically reduce their marking-related workload and, most importantly, to do so without any negative impact on pupil outcomes. 

  • Imogen Rowley is a content producer at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools.

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