Do you have a licence for that?

The great pen licence debate. Can you imagine walking into a classroom and demanding to see licences from all of the children to prove that they have passed the pen test? If they’ve left it at home, can they bring it to the office later à la driving licences? Sounds preposterous? I agree.

Pen licences, a certificate and a (usually) horrible handwriting pen, are given to children that demonstrate neat handwriting. They are awarded for ‘accomplishing the pencil’ and this is something you can aspire to from around Year 4. Much like a driving licence, it can be revoked for misdemeanours – going off course, speeding (rushing the letter formation), causing collisions (with other words) etc.

Why do we use them? No one has stopped a child from picking up a paint brush because they haven’t mastered the pencil. No one has stopped a child from using a felt tip because they haven’t mastered the wax crayon. Or is there a secret hierarchy of mark making tools that I’m not privvy too? I must have missed that day at uni…

Pen licences are demeaning and add pressure where it’s really not needed. If you don’t have one, your self-esteem is impacted. If you’re finding it hard to meet the pen requirements, would you continue to put in the effort? Especially when you sit next to someone who already has their pen. If you do have a pen licence, there’s the constant effort to keep up the presentation for fear that the licence may be revoked. Is using a pen the be all and end all?

What would happen if licences were abolished and everyone got a pen regardless? What if the focus was not on moving to pen but being able to choose the writing implement that suits you best? What if we could lose the symbolism of a pencil being for younger or poorer writers and empower the children to have agency in their presentation?

I looked back at which children in each class had been given a licence and compared writing samples to those that hadn’t. It was clear that handwriting needed to be on the agenda but pen licences were not the fix. Conducting some pupil voice interviews, I asked those on pencils to explain how they had been supported to improve their handwriting:

‘I have to practise in the morning. I use a sheet and copy it.’

‘I have to go slower and take care.’

‘I have to take my time.’

‘I have to think about what I’m doing.’

The frustration was clear. The feedback they received was often about their presentation despite their efforts with the content. Yet little was being done to improve their handwriting apart from being told to do it better.

Handwriting must be taught and it must be taught well. Much like phonics, there is an opinion that handwriting is taught in KS1 and that it is not something for KS2 to focus on. I put handwriting back on the agenda for every class. We talked about how to teach handwriting and that handing out a practise sheet didn’t accomplish this. We moved from precursive in EYFS to securing print. There’s nothing worse than trying to un-teach poor letter formation as a Year 1 teacher. Using print ensures that letters are formed in the correct direction and makes joining more natural in later years. Print is continued into Year 1 and then we begin joining letters that make sense to do naturally. From Year 2 onwards, joins are taught systematically and applied through their writing. In upper KS2, handwriting is refined. The children develop a style and meet the requirements of the end of key stage assessments.

The children’s presentation was neater and our focus went back to the content of the writing. But what about pens? We gave every child from Year 2 up a pen. In fact, I gave them a choice of pen – the traditional Berol handwriting pen, a biro and a fountain pen. We let the children try them and choose what worked best for them. Most chose the biro. Very few opted for the fountain pen. I set some guidelines:

⁃ Year 2 will use pens for publishing work for display

⁃ KS2 children will have the choice of pen or pencil for each piece of work but published work will be in pen

⁃ Handwriting must continue to be taught systematically

⁃ Mistakes must be crossed out with a single line

It was amusing to see the shock on faces that everyone would have a pen without a licence; especially as we already have editing pens across the whole school and this is considered the norm. But everyone went with it and trialled it. Initially, it was a mixed bag. There were some untidy pieces of work in pen but through perseverance and systematic handwriting teaching this did improve. Gone was the pressure of the licence. The children are able to articulate their reasons for using a pencil (often for drafting) or pen for each piece of work. Allowing the children to choose the type of pen showed us that the traditional Berol pens are just not conducive to neat handwriting after the tip flattens, but biros last ages (and are much cheaper). Presentation has improved across the school. Those children that struggled with handwriting are benefitting from the teaching and often find the pens easier to move on the page.

So let’s end the pen licences. It’s demotivating for all. Let’s teach handwriting properly, give children the choice and get back to focusing on the content.

Before you go, can I just see your licence for using whiteboard pens? Oh, you don’t have one…back to the chalkboard for you then until you can prove your worthiness…

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.