You can’t blame celebrity edubloggers for teachers’ unreasonable workloads – Albert Einstein

In his indefatigable efforts to get schools and teachers to recognise that much of what is done in the name of demonstrating progress for Ofsted’s benefit is a pointless waste of time, apparently, Ofsted’s National Director, Mike Cladingbowl has been blaming me for inventing ‘triple marking’.[i]

This is an accusation I refute.

As I understand it, the phenomena of ‘triple marking’ of goes something like this:

  1. You mark students’ work
  2. They act on your marking
  3. You mark students’ work again.

The logic is that in responding to students’ responses to your response you are having a dialogue. This is a hall of mirrors, endlessly reflecting back on itself.  However, the prevailing feeling amongst school leaders appears to be that having a dialogue is A Good Thing. How do we know? Because Ofsted say so.

Or do they? In this clarification document, Ofsted say the following:

Ofsted does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. Ofsted recognises that the amount of work in books will often depend on the age and ability of the pupils. Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders. Ofsted recognises the importance of different forms of feedback and inspectors will look at how these are used to promote learning.

So that’s clear then: there’s no need for “unnecessary or extensive written dialogue”. Except, how do we know what an Ofsted inspector might perceive as ‘unnecessary’ or ‘extensive’? Doesn’t this suggest that they are looking for moderate amounts of ‘necessary’ written dialogue? Certainly this is open to interpretation and you can see how an over zealous type might infer that teachers must produce written dialogue and, that being the case, it might be safer to err on the side of extensive rather than insufficient. As always, no matter how hard the people at the top protest otherwise, some school leaders (and some Ofsted Inspectors) persist in doing the wrong thing.

At this point I need to come clean. While I didn’t invent it, I have written and endorsed a system developed by Clevedon School termed Triple Impact Marking (or TIM). The important difference is that the three parts of TIM are:

  1. Students self assess their work
  2. You mark their work
  3. They respond to your marking

As you can see, the onus is on students’ rather than teachers. But even so, this system can result in meaningless exchanges like this:

  • Student: The work was fun. I found it easy.
  • Teacher: Please use capital letters and write in full sentences.
  • Student: I will, thanks sir.

There is little in this dialogue that seems necessary or useful. Here’s another example, this time from a maths teacher:
This sort of dialogue would seem to be a waste of everyone’s time. I don’t really care how students feel about the work they’ve done, nor do I want them committing meaningless platitudes to paper[ii]. I’d much rather class time was spent learning stuff and then practising it.
The type of ‘dialogue’ I do think is worthwhile should go more like this:

  1. Students proofread their work for accuracy and highlight sections on which they particularly want feedback.
  2. You check they have proofread – if they haven’t, refuse to mark it until they have. Then read through and provide feedback where it has been requested.
  3. Students then practise on improving their performance in the identified area.

In terms of the impact on teacher workload, this can and should be minimal. Ideally, I would suggest the only thing you need to write in students’ books are numbers which correspond to feedback tasks which are displayed on the board; students can write the feedback in their books themselves. Then, as they begin practising, you are able to have discussions about the work you have read as required. This means that time is spent reading students’ work rather than writing in their books. In this way, I was able to mark a set of books in less than 10 minutes.

One further point: teachers should not mark students’ work for accuracy. If we point out their mistakes, there is no impetus to complete work accurately first time round. By insisting that the minimum expectation for written work is that it be proofread before it’s handed in, we make committing careless errors burdensome. If they know they will be expected to correct these mistakes before you are prepared to mark their work then they will learn that it easier to write correctly first time round. And if they don’t know how to correct an error then they will be requesting feedback at the point that they are ready to learn. Any input we give is far more likely to have impact than any amount of unsolicited advice.

So, just in case anyone is unclear, the expectation that teachers should spend every evening and weekend ploughing through students’ exercise books is wrong. If teachers are unable to complete their marking obligations in, let’s say, half an hour a day, then the school’s marking policy needs to be carefully rethought. As I’ve said before, any policy which is predicated on the belief that teachers can or should work harder will fail.

[i] Apparently Mike didn’t really blame me, he just asked Old Andrew at a teachmeet whether I was responsible. Any blame therefore is entirely Old Andrew’s

[ii] Only someone depressingly and unimaginatively literal minded could take this out of context to imply that being uninterested in compelling children to waste time writing something trite and plodding in the pretence that it is somehow a marker of their progress, somehow makes me some kind of soulless monster who doesn’t care about children’s feelings. Obviously I am such a monster, but that’s not the point.