You don’t have to mark

Be bold. Be brave. Put those pens down!

Here’s one of the main reasons I’m still a teacher.

When I tell people that I don’t mark any books there are gasps of disbelief and jealousy. Friends in other schools have cute trolleys or suitcases that they wheel out at the end of the day filled with books and the marking toolkit of every pen colour under the rainbow. I walk out with my notebook – no heavy lifting for me!

So what do we do instead? We talk to the children and they talk to each other. We constantly give feedback but there isn’t a verbal feedback stamper in sight. Who would I be stamping for? The children know we talked about their work. They’ve acted on my feedback and the evidence is shown in their work.

Why did we change? Workload was an issue, but everyone is willing to do whatever it takes to give the children the best education possible. But endless marking and pen switching wasn’t having as much impact as the effort required. We found that we were writing all of these comments then having to read them and talk about them with the children the next day anyway – so what was the point?

How did we implement it? We decided on some key language that everyone would use. We called the feedback ‘conferencing’ and it could take many forms. You can conference about your learning to an adult in school, a peer or with your family. Parents were informed of the changes and invited in to see it. We held lots of short feedback sessions as a staff to see how it was going and the impact it was having on the children as well as the staff. Teaching assistants felt that they were having more impact in the classroom as they are equally responsible for providing feedback. Teachers felt that their impact was instant because they gave feedback that was acted on straightaway. Gone were the days of writing a next step comment for the child to improve their work the next day.

What has the impact been? Teachers are planning more adventurous lessons and challenging the children because they aren’t exhausted from marking. They are exhausted from teaching though! There’s far more writing at length going on because teachers know that they don’t have to plan in long marking sessions around the rest of their workload. As we aren’t marking to a specific learning objective, the children are making more rounded progress as all aspects of their work is being reviewed with the adult. The quality of the work is improving as the children work collaboratively to make better word choices or improve their artwork.

How often is it used? I’m often asked how regularly I conference with the children. Unfortunately, I can’t quantify it. I move around the room giving feedback throughout the day. My TA also does this. The children give feedback to each other too, so it’s an endless cycle. I have regular meetings with the children where we look together at a broader spectrum of their work and make longer term goals. We do not write any of these goals down. The children know their goals because we’ve talked about them and that has far more impact than reading (or trying to read) a note in a book.

What do outsiders think? Of course, people are worried about visitors and what they think of it. Our feedback policy states what conferencing is and how it’s used and that marking will not be seen in the books. From the visitors that we have had since implementation, the feedback has been positive. Conferencing is embedded in all of our classes from Nursery to Year 6 and visitors can see it in action. The children can articulate their learning, what needs improving, how they know and what they are doing about it. Our school also happens to be in the top 3% for progress in England, even though we are not in a leafy green area.

The biggest question people have though is about OFSTED. What do they think of it? Well, we are the proof (and I’m sure many other schools are too) that you don’t need evidence of marking to prove impact in the classroom. They were fully onboard with what we are doing and acknowledged and approved of what we are achieving. You don’t have to mark!

What’s next for us? Conferencing is embedded with the children as part of our teaching and learning. We’ve also been using it with staff as part of professional conversations. It’s having impact; it makes the conversation less personal and more about the job. People are able to disassociate themselves from the feedback to some extent and think objectively. It helps to take some of the emotion out of a situation. However, teachers put so much of themselves into teaching that it is impossible to take all of the emotion out of feedback. Some members of staff have felt it patronising at times to use the same language with staff that we use with the children. This is something for us to work on, as when it has worked, it has been very successful.

Conferencing has relieved the pressure on teachers. TAs feel empowered to support teaching and learning. Professional conversations are less personal when using the conferencing model. But most importantly, the children are empowered, articulate and progressing.

So go ahead. Be bold, be brave and put those marking pens down.

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