At 7.55am Peter* walked past my door. “Good morning. Did you have a good Easter?” I asked. “Yes it was lovely,” he replied, “I want to say thank you: for the first time in 20 years of teaching, I had an actual holiday and didn’t do any schoolwork. This new marking policy has changed my life.”
That’s not something a senior leader hears very often and it made me so pleased. Our new no-marking policy was having the right effect – increasing the children’s progress and ensuring my staff’s workload was reduced.
It all started in May 2016 over coffee. My executive head, myself and some colleagues from another school were talking about marking and how much teachers have to do, when she suggested we stop it. For a minute I thought it was crazy, but then I remembered a school I had visited where the children did a lot of self-marking and reflection.
Then one of my colleagues mentioned Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking – one of the three reports that came from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group in March 2016 off the back of the workload challenge. It talked about reducing the importance given to marking, and rolling back unnecessary practice. After talking it through, we decided to trial the suggestion in a couple of year groups for a month to see how it went.
Back in my school, my senior leadership team (SLT) and I looked into it in more detail. Two of the leaders took on the task and we chose Y2 and Y4 maths and English classes as the trial groups. We also looped in our Achievement Leaders to make a plan so that the teachers affected were clear on how it would work.
It was a simple structure. The teachers would check all the children’s books daily to inform planning for the next day, but would do no formal marking. The children already used purple pens for self-marking so this continued – and we added self-reflections at least twice a week and peer marking into the purple pen domain. A red pen would be introduced for when there had been 1:1 conferencing or small groups with the teacher, which happened once a week.
Only teachers would conference children, not support staff, and assessment meetings would be held each week for 30 minutes so that highlighting key year group statements could happen in year group teams. These short assessment meetings replaced the longer weekly marking meetings that teachers had – Big Write had previously meant Big Mark.
As a school we already had an assessment tool that contained all the year group key objectives so teachers would group children and highlight if they had achieved the maths and English objectives linked to the learning for that week. Previously they did this on a half termly basis and it was time consuming, but a short weekly meeting meant that ongoing assessment was taking place, the school data was always up-to-date and gaps could clearly be seen by teachers to inform planning. These assessment meetings later helped to cut teacher workload even more as assessment weeks were no longer needed.
The teachers were excited about the idea of not having to take suitcases of books home to mark. But they were also anxious – we were awaiting Ofsted and this was a big change. We reassured the teachers that we were there to support them and that Ofsted looks for quality over quantity with feedback.
In the first week of the trial, the SLT members and year group teams met a couple of times to see how it was going, share good practice and make any necessary tweaks. It was tough: the teachers were tired – their days were extremely busy as every minute really did count, and they were still in very early and leaving late. Was this a bad idea? I was starting to worry that this change wasn’t having the impact I had wanted.
During our SLT meeting that week we talked about the trial and the two leads arranged to spend half a day in each of the classes to support the teachers the following week. The ‘sharing good practice’ meetings continued and some support staff also came along. This went well: by the end of the second week the teachers all left by 4pm on the Friday. Was it starting to work?
By the fourth week and the original end of the trial, it felt as if the scheme had been adapted 100 times, the teachers were becoming quicker at conferencing and the children were more familiar with the approach and better trained in self- and peer-marking and reflection. The teachers weren’t taking work home and had their evenings and weekends back.
In SLT we looked over a sample of books and found that progress was good and outstanding, with an overall improvement in presentation – it was all very positive. Then the Ofsted phone call came. As an RI school we had a two-day inspection. We explained about the trial and showed them some conferencing in practice. It didn’t harm us: we were seen to be a good school with areas of outstanding.
Our Y2 and Y4 teachers have now become our experts and we will roll out the policy across the whole school this September. It wasn’t an easy journey and things didn’t change overnight, but thanks to an open-door communication policy, an open-minded, supportive staff team and perseverance, the brave decision has paid off. Our children are making excellent progress and teachers’ workload is down, which has also helped us to retain staff.
As a leader, I have learnt that empathy and projecting hope and positivity are key when you believe in something, even when initially things aren’t going as you planned. I’ve also been reminded that it’s important never to lose touch with the most important individuals – the teachers who follow you and ensure the school succeeds.
* All names have been changed.
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