I’ve been arguing for some time that if teachers spent less time marking (by which I mean writing comments on students’ work) then they might have a lot more time for giving meaningful feedback which actually helps develop more flexible, durable learning. This is a message that tends to play well with harried, over burdened teachers but often fills school leaders with horror. The fear is that because some teachers are lazy, good-for-nothing loafers they’ll simply take this as an opportunity to shuttle off to the pub every evening and their students will be even more neglected.

I can certainly understand this concern, but – rightly or wrongly – every school leader already has a list of who these teachers are. They know who they feel they can trust and who is undeserving of such largesse. As such, the principle of earned autonomy is a useful approach. Treating all teachers equally is fundamentally unfair – some will be vastly more experienced than others, others will be considerably more conscientious than some, and so on. Instead it’s entirely reasonable for a school leader to say, these teachers have earned a greater degree of autonomy than those.

If your outcomes are consistently good, if you’re seen to play a full and active role in promoting the values of the school and supporting colleagues then you should be trusted to do what you think is best for your students rather than simply tick off a list of ‘non-negotiables’. I call this Intelligent Accountability.

So, here’s my proposal: If you’re a teacher and you’d like to explore whether marking less might result in better feedback for your students I suggest you approach your leadership team with a plan. Nominate one class and suggest that for a term you will not mark their work and use the time saved in other potentially more effective ways. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Read students’ work, identify common mistakes and misconceptions and design whole-class feedback sequences.
  • Experiment with using Comparative Judgement to help students get a better understanding of what excellence looks like in your subject.
  • Work on creating a range of exemplar work to model and scaffold more effectively.
  • Explore ways to reduce feedback over time to support learning over the longer-term.
  • Plan new teaching sequences, create better resources, improve sequencing of curriculum.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other productive ways you might use the time freed up by not marking. Then, at the end of the term, compare the work your students have produced with that of similar students in similar classes and see if you can draw some very tentative conclusions. Of course this won’t prove anything, might as a structure it might reassure skittish school leaders that you’re a professional and you take your students’ progress seriously. Most school leaders are well-intentioned and want both you and your students to thrive; help to reassure them by making your proposal as clear and structured as you think it warrants.

And here’s my challenge: if you’re a school leader, allow your teachers to rise to this. If teachers come to you with a clear proposal for how they feel they might better use their time, take them seriously. Look for ways to support reductions in their workload and take the view that even the teachers you think of as feckless have stress jobs. Apply the principle of earned autonomy to reward those teachers who’ve proved themselves reliable to do what they think is best rather than what you’d like them to do; there’s a good chance they know best. And support those teacher you feel haven’t yet earned this autonomy by giving them a clear set of steps to climb and offer them the support – and I mean genuine support – to be better.

What d’you think? Worth a shot?