The truth about marking

Hilary Moriarty discusses the demanding task of marking – have schools done enough to schedule protected time during the working day for the mammoth task?

There is much talk of the need to reduce the demands made upon teachers, even in the independent sector – nay, possibly especially in the independent sector. Here in independent schools, teachers still give much of themselves and their time to pupils, over and above every encounter in a classroom.

Going above and beyond

There are extra-curricular activities which need organisation and supervision, a consequence of the utter conviction in the sector that extra-curricular activities are a vital and indeed integral part of the education independent schools offer. There is support, both individual and in small groups, for students who just need it. This is whether the material is tough, ‘sir, could you just go over the that equation again?’ or because a class has been missed, ‘did you start quadratic equations without me sir?’

There must be many staff appointments which live or die by what the candidate is prepared to offer over and above that which the job spec can legitimately demand. 

It’s some years since a son of mine with a good degree in Maths and Engineering was interviewed at one of the top independent schools and was sure he was not appointed because he was not convincing enough about what ‘extra’ value he could bring to the school, over and above any excellence in the subject and the classroom. What passion of his own would translate into a good extra-curricular opportunity for the boys? (Given the current problems recruiting a mathematician at all, it’s interesting to speculate on whether such rigour would still apply… but I digress).

You might also like: Is marking a dying art? 

The devil is in the detail

One of the biggest demands upon teachers’ time is, of course, marking. I taught English, convinced that if students were to learn to write, they had to write. A bit like riding a horse or a bike or a car – you get better at it by doing it, not by talking about it. Your writing does not improve because you read about how to do it or because someone tells you how to do it, it improves because you do it, acting on all the advice and correction you can collect. The corollary of course is that the learning process includes hearing from someone else – a teacher? – what you are doing well and what does not work. Try again. Try harder. Get back on the horse.

The trouble with my theory of pupils writing and teachers correcting, advising, improving, eventually celebrating and bidding the student goodbye, is that it entails one ‘helluva’ lot of marking. And to be any use at all, surely, the marking has to be thorough, detailed, explanatory, advisory and, above all, personal. Every exercise book presented an opportunity for a one-to-one conversation, in which what the teacher said did not apply to anyone else in class, just to the student addressed. When a student hands in an essay, for the time it takes me to read it and comment on it, I, the teacher, am all yours, and only yours. And so help me, if you just glance at the grade and spin round to enquire about other pupils’ grades without reading what I wrote for you and you alone at midnight in my kitchen – I shall scream.

I once wrote a staff panto with Cinderella re-named Markerella, unable to go to the ball because of all the marking she had to do, while the ugly sisters taught Maths and were known as Tickety Boo and Crossella

You might read that and think, ‘it’ll never catch on’ and basically, sadly, I think you’re probably right. Since my days in the classroom, the Government has woken up to the probable time commitment for teachers marking work and invented the protected time which makes some of the marking possible in the working day, and on the premises, rather than carted home by the stack to occupy two or three hours a night.

But I think it’s quite possible the protected time is the same for, say, mathematicians as it is for English and History teachers, making no allowance for the obvious differences in the tasks. I had better not get started on this ‘unfairness’ – I once wrote a staff panto with Cinderella re-named Markerella, unable to go to the ball because of all the marking she had to do, while the ugly sisters taught Maths and were known as Tickety Boo and Crossella. Only a Prince Charming Deputy Head could rescue Markerella with a lighter timetable.

How marking is used

It’s a worthwhile exercise for schools – like an internal inspection – to gather exercise books from all subjects and take a view on performance of staff as well as pupils. Is it all ticks? Is there a dialogue between pupil and teacher? Are the teacher’s comments accurate and useful? Does work develop over time? And how differently do the different departments treat the task? If the school has a marking policy, who wrote it, when, and is it followed?

I once came across a set of English exercise books – not on inspection – in which the teacher had dutifully set a task, then stamped each entry with a dinky little one-word stamper which said, ‘seen’. Aargh! So much for a dialogue between teacher and taught.

So, what more do we want? Actually, we want reports as well, please. And if comments on work seem to be shrinking, that’s not the case with reports. There is of course a link to the whole ‘write a lot, mark it properly’ school of thought – if you have done that all term, there will be plenty to say in the end-of-term report. But saying it is time-consuming, done properly, a real drain on teachers’ time.

As we have noted, the Government has paid heed to this demand on teachers’ time and you can’t write reports if you’re actually in class, which is where you should be most of the day, so the notion of ‘non-contact time’ is now embedded. For which much thanks, we may think. No doubt it was the very absence of such time back in my own school days which accounts for reporting which hovered between sketchy and downright useless. Seven years in a grammar school, my entire secondary school life, are summed up in 21 single pages of foolscap, with subjects granted one line – about three inches long – for comment on each page.

My last entry, about to take A-levels in English Lit, History and Latin, shocks me now with its brevity: Latin, ‘very pleasing work, a good result expected’. History? Not there at all. Blank. Teacher must have been absent in report-writing time. No matter. The head sums up my year: ‘very encouraging’.

Gosh. The good old days? Maybe not. 

On reflection, it’s not that far from ‘seen it’ as a commentary on my school progress, is it? I may be envious now of the time teachers are given to do all the things that are not actually active teaching, such as detailed and attentive marking, or thorough and useful reporting both to others in school and to parents as they would expect.

I seem to have had the misfortune to teach at a time when we were waking up to the need for teachers, in marking or reports, to say more, but we had not reached the giddy heights of providing the time for them to do it.

But we have now. I just hope they use it well.

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former head and former national director of The Boarding Schools’ Association. 


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