It is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook.

UPDATE: There is a happy(ish) ending to this sad story.

As you will no doubt be aware, Ofsted has gone to great lengths to clarify its position on marking. In October 2014 it very helpfully published this clarification document which, from September 2015 has been incorporated into the Inspection Handbook.

In it, several pervasive myths relating specifically to marking are addressed:

  • Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning.

  • While inspectors will consider how written and oral feedback are used to promote learning, Ofsted does not expect to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers.

  • If it is necessary for inspectors to identify marking as an area for improvement for a school, they will pay careful attention to the way recommendations are written to ensure that these do not drive unnecessary workload for teachers.

That’s pretty unambiguous, right?

Now, imagine my surprise when I was shown this Ofsted report dated 3-4th November 2015. Roe Lee Park Primary school has been down graded from outstanding to requires improvement for the following reasons:

Leaders have not sustained the high performance reported at the last inspection.

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On the surface, this seems fair enough: a classic case of complacency perhaps? But, hang on, what’s this: “Marking in Years 1 to 4 is not always clear enough to help pupils improve their work”? Is that reasonable to say? If “Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback” what’s an inspector doing telling a school it doesn’t like the marking?

Then on the next page we get this:

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Is it just me, or is this Ofsted specifying a particular style of marking?

Then, in the Leadership & Management section the report marking pops up again:

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Again, this might be innocuous, but I’d argue it’s likely this kind of statement will end up driving unnecessary workload. Probably the only objective, reliable way to see if pupils are making progress and standards are improving is to aggregate comparative judgement as described here. Otherwise, book checks should sample the quality of the work, not the quality of the marking.

Marking rears its head once more in the quality of teaching, learning and assessment section of the report:

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Now, I’m no primary specialist, but I’m fairly sure that it’s pretty reasonable to expect less pupil response to written feedback in KS1 than KS2. It also seems reasonable to suppose that if Year 5 and 6 students are performing well this should be attributed as much to the efforts of the KS1 team as to the marking of the KS2 teachers.

We should also draw attention to the fact that marking and feedback are not the same thing. The appearance of written feedback tells us little about whether feedback is being given and arguably, more making might mean less feedback. It seems perfectly sensible to assume – although I may well be wrong – that less written and more verbal feedback is particularly desirable in KS1.

Then we come to the suggestion that the quality of teachers’ written comments may not be up to snuff. We’re told that “There are occasions when the teachers’ writing does not provide a good model for spelling or punctuation.” What are we to infer from this? Are teachers filling students’ exercise books with illiterate scrawl? Although I have no idea how the inspection was actually conducted, I can imagine a scenario where the inspection team sat down to mark the teachers’ marking and found it wanting. It may be entirely reasonable to hold teachers to account for the quality of their spelling and punctuation but this does strongly suggest that inspectors were looking for a particular type of marking: extended written prose. When I mark books I rarely, if ever, write in full sentences – what would the purpose be? If the purpose of written feedback is to provide a good model of how to write then it’s a futile waste of time and effort. Writing should be modelled in the context in which we want students to write. Also, surely it’s massively more efficient to provide models for the whole class rather than to expect teachers to provide individual, bespoke models for each individual student? I can think of few things more likely to drive unnecessary and onerous workload.

The last sentence of the passage above is particularly ominous: “At other times, the teachers’ advice is not acted on by pupils, so errors persist.” The belief that students must be seen to respond to written feedback is widely held, but a thing doesn’t become true just because lots of people believe it. I’ve argued here that requiring students to respond to feedback could well be counter-productive and is at best a waste of time.

All in all, this is a report which requires improvement. It fails to meet the requirements laid down in the Inspection Handbook and is destined to widely interpreted as meaning that ‘what Ofsted want’ is more written feedback in the form of extended prose, more artificial and meaningless student response and ever greater pressure on schools and teachers. How this report got through Ofsted’s internal quality assurance processes I have no idea, but the fact that the inspection was led by Jean Olsson-Law – one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors is a savage blow to those of us trying to convince schools that Ofsted has changed for the better and that there is no prescription on what schools must do. Can we really just write off the views of a HMI as those of a ‘rogue inspector’ and not representative of the organisation?

I should say that I no real understanding of the context of Roe Lee Park school beyond the fact that it was considered outstanding at the last inspection and that this inspection was triggered as the result of a Section 8 inspection which suggests that there are some serious concerns which have gone unspecified in the report. Maybe the school deserves its judgement – on that I have no idea or opinion – but it does not deserve to be issued with a report in breach of Ofsted’s own guidance and, most importantly, the system doesn’t deserve to hear that ‘what Ofsted wants’ is more important than what schools might believe is the best way to teach their students. Badly done.