The fallacy of intensive marking rotas

It is an absolute imperative in any contemporary school which has an aim of achieving an ‘Outstanding’ Ofsted that ‘the books must be up-to-date’. Marking is an essential aspect of any teacher’s to-do list – if not for the kids, then at least because no-notice book scrutinies are consistent as a way of keeping track of teachers’ work.

Keeping up is a difficult task – at my current school, the official policy is that books must be marked every two weeks. However, as I’m an RE teacher, and started off with a timetable of 24 groups, even our workload-piling senior management granted a generous concession of an extra week for those in my department. Even then, though, the maths is simple – with 24 groups, I still need to mark a set of books every day (and an additional set once a week on top of that). And that’s assuming I don’t have a day off at all.

If this was part of a normal working day, this would be fine, but the reality is that spending all day teaching, planning, doing admin, dealing with children outside of lessons, attending meetings and other (interminable) sessions is so draining that trying to squeeze in this commitment is often one step too far.

But there is a broader question here as well. The fact that Ofsted came before any mention of children at the start of this blog is perhaps indicative of the underlying rationale behind my school’s marking policy. Notwithstanding the fact that Ofsted were due to turn up any week all year (and finally graced us with their presence in the penultimate week of teaching – thx), it genuinely feels like our school’s policy is designed more to impress inspectors than it is to have any meaningful impact on children.

With a marking rota like mine, the incentive becomes a kind of digital 1 or 0 checklist of classes. Have this group’s books been marked in the last three weeks? No? 0. Yes? 1. The impact of this is to undermine the actual quality of marking. Rather than any sort of engagement with the work students have written, the process becomes some sort of race. Cheerily distribute green ticks across the work, spot a few SPAG errors to flag up and write a couple of comments for the sake of avoiding criticism for ‘tick-and-flicking’. Any inspector who turns up and flicks through the book can then see plenty of evidence of my commitment to Outstanding progress (over time). The workload overall is simply too big to feel like any real time can be committed to any individual book.

But there’s an underlying flaw here. Marking work for the sake of evidencing its completion is redundant. The whole point of marking, surely, is to ensure students receive formative feedback on their work that is meaningful. Our school’s race style mentality means that whilst there may be plenty of green generously distributed across the books’ pages, there is little point to having done so.

At this point, then, we must step back. Why should we be marking? Surely it is to identify and praise good work; to spot and correct errors; to suggest areas for improvement. If this means we need to take our foot off the 0 or 1 accelerator, and start looking at focusing much more on the qualitative aspects of the marking process, we might find it more effective.

To be fair, my school is now changing its policy to focus more on two other approaches:

1) Identifying set pieces of work for marking. This helps focus on the quality of marking.

2) Setting clear tasks for students to improve on based on existing work. (Rewrite this paragraph and include …)


My plea to senior management is therefore to establish the rationale for marking and the workload consequences of this before enforcing your policy. Keep this in mind when designing the policy. I feel like I’ve wasted hours of time simply scrawling in green all over work for no other reason than to save myself the punishment of ‘unmarked’ books should an inspector turn up. This is a waste of everyone’s time and a distortion of the purpose of marking.

In response, teachers need to ensure that marking is followed by allotted time for students to respond to comments to ensure that your time is not wasted (although clearly protracted dialogues are not helpful).