When you make something a fetish, ashes and dusts will laugh at you, because they know even the most valuable fetishes will turn into dusts and ashes!

Mehmet Murat ildan

Last night I innocently posted the following tweet:


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This sparked something of a debate. A number of people got in touch to tell me this was ‘bonkers’ and a ‘complete waste of money’. Other responses ranged from cautious interest to overwhelming support. But by far the biggest objection was the assertion that marking is an essential aspect of planning: if teachers don’t know how pupils are performing then future teaching will be flawed at best and useless at worst.

Here’s a brief sample of some of the responses I’ve received so far:

“Marking informs planning, difficult to get someone to do it on your behalf.” 

“How will you learn about your pupils? Marking can be a crucial dialogue and relationship – a matching of pupil effort with ours. In fact, if we have a problem marking it – perhaps we are setting the wrong work?” 

“I would happily have someone mark homework in Primary as it only really tells you how much help they had!” 

“Marking is part of assessment and should inform planning. How does that work if teacher hasn’t done it?” 

“Daft. Marking for marking’s sake. Utterly meaningless.” 

“Surely would be better spending ££s on employing more teachers to give more planning & assessment time?” 

“Yes! Teacher can still overlook the work, see where the main misunderstandings were & plan further resources to put them right!” 

And History teacher Heather F has blogged her view here.

Before we heap either praise or derision on the school I think some context may be in order. The school would rather avoid public castigation so the only details I plan to share are that it is middle school and is considered by Ofsted to be ‘good’. I was visiting the school to deliver training on literacy and during a break I got into a conversation with the Headteacher about the EEF’s judgement of primary homework. In short they say

There is some evidence that when homework is used as a short and focused intervention it can be effective in improving students’ attainment (with some studies showing up to eight months’ positive impact on attainment). Overall the general benefits are likely to be modest if homework is more routinely set. There is clear evidence that it is helpful at secondary level, but there is much less evidence of benefit at primary level.

My view of this kind of research is that it would be stupid to say homework in primary schools isn’t beneficial; rather the problem is in the type of homework pupils are asked to complete. My own daughters are expected to make gas mask boxes, dioramas of Roald Dahl books and model castles. In addition they get a range of ad hoc worksheets which seem to be downloaded willy nilly from the internet. This is, as far as I can see, entirely purposeless. But the EEF make clear that not all homework is the same: “Short focused tasks or activities which relate directly to what is being taught, and which are built upon in school, are likely to be more effective than regular daily homework.”

So as I understand it, the school in question has concluded that in a curriculum where children have the opportunity to experience the widest possible range of experiences (they offer horse riding, archery and a whole host of other exciting activities) there is limited opportunity to practice what they have learned during the school day. Therefore, teachers need to set daily homework in which pupils are expected to master skills to fluency. But, mindful of workload issues  they understood this could place an intolerable burden on teachers. Also, there is always an opportunity cost: if teachers are expected to both set and mark daily homework, their ability to plan and teach a rich curriculum may be reduced. Equally, is it reasonable to expect children to complete homework that is not marked promptly?

The solution was to invest £20,000 per year to employ a team to mark homework. Teachers are still expected to mark classwork, but in oder to signal the high value of homework, it is turned around on the day it is handed in and both pupils and teachers are provided with feedback. In addition, markers staff a nightly homework club to ensure that all children have the time and space to complete the work set.

The school explains that nearly all markers are Teaching Assistants who work closely with teachers. Whilst teachers see responses to homework but don’t mark it. Wherever possible, the marker works in class with the teacher, spending time with children to go over misunderstandings. This frees up class time for tasks requiring expert teacher knowledge and also allows teachers to concentrate on marking work produced in class.

The reason I shared this on Twitter was because it sounded like an interesting use of the school budget. My initial reaction was sceptical but there more I heard about it, the more interested I became. I haven’t seen it in action and have no idea how much impact it might have on pupils’ learning or attitudes except that all the staff I spoke to were very positive.

For what it’s worth, here’s Ofsted view:

Teaching is good because teachers have good subject knowledge and in the main plan challenging work. The high quality of their marking and feedback to pupils is a particular strength.

Teachers know which pupils need extra help and ensure that they receive it. Teaching assistants are highly effective in this aspect of the school’s work.

The quality of marking and of feedback to pupils is excellent. Marking is frequent, detailed and helpful. The marking includes individual questions for pupils to help consolidate their learning, which they always answer. 

Homework is used well to improve progress. The school has introduced an internet-based homework facility (‘virtual learning environment’) which pupils greatly enjoy using. Parents, carers and pupils are content with the amount and type of homework that pupils receive.

What really surprised me was the result of many teachers who seemed to take the view that unless a teacher marks all the work their pupils produce something is badly amiss. Now, I’ve made several excited claims about marking in the past and while I hold firm to the view that marking is an act of love, I’m increasingly sceptical about how useful it is for teachers to change their planning in light of pupils’ performance, especially if AfL is wrong.

It’s also worth reminding ourselves that just because feedback tops the charts on what teachers can do to improve learning, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more and more marking is desirable. In fact, Hattie says, “Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” And Robert Bjork claims that “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.” So maybe less marking might be beneficial?

There’s a whiff of the hair shirt about the pressure and guilt we feel around marking and I wonder how much this might have to do with the Sunk Cost Fallacy? Could it be that we value marking so highly just because we’ve done so damn much of it and it’s unbearable painful to contemplate the thought that it might not have been the best use of our time? The consensus seems to be that if work isn’t marked it has no value but isn’t a least some of the value in the fact that pupils are practising?

If we become excessively or irrationally devoted to a thing it becomes a fetish; an act or object imbued with almost mystical significance. I’m not for a moment arguing that marking is bad thing or that we should stop doing it, but do we really need to feel quite so protective and precious about it? In a world where stress and workload and a major contributing factor to so many teachers quitting the profession, maybe we should welcome someone offering to should some of our marking burden instead of flagellating ourselves with multi-coloured pens.

Just a thought.