Saturday, 5 October 2013

A few thoughts on marking and work-loads


There is a bit of a buzz about marking and teachers’ work-loads going on at the moment. So here are a few thoughts of mine. I taught History for the whole of my career, with frequent forays into English, Modern Studies and Politics. I hope some of my anecdotal meanderings will help some hard-pressed NQT, or even cause some more senior practitioners to reconsider what they do - before, no doubt, deciding that what they do is best.

Work loads are very great, and I see no way round that. Fortunately I thought I had the best job in Scotland (sometimes) and was able to concentrate a very large proportion of my work on lesson preparation, which was always a stimulating challenge. A feature of my subjects, by the way, was that they were constantly changing (Politics most of all, of course) so that there was no question of merely using the old lessons on and on. Lesson preparation was always needed. Mind you with age and experience one could find and adapt old materials pretty rapidly; it was no longer the same effort in my fifties as it had been in my twenties. This was why I was able to direct a school play or musical fairly frequently. When I was younger I could mark or prepare into the small hours. As I got older and this became impossible I did school work early evening and both days of the weekend. But by then my children had grown up and so that was possible.

I never argued that the work-load justified the holidays. My line to friends who sneered enviously at my summer holidays was: “Well, I chose my profession with care. Didn’t you?” A good part of the summer was always spent doing serious reading, which is undoubtedly essential for teachers who aspire to give good value to the ablest pupils, though what counted as work and what counted as a pleasurable hobby is hard to define. If you don’t enjoy reading serious history books, don’t become a History teacher.

The only marking that I did not enjoy, and resented doing, was internal assessment towards final grades. The reason for this was because there seemed to be no educational value; it was too late. There could be no beneficial feed-back to pupils since this was their final mark for that component of the course. It also annoyed me that the exam boards brazenly passed over a large chunk of their marking to us, and did not pay us a bean. How much better the Scottish Qualifications Authority method, where the History coursework at Higher and Advanced Higher is externally marked.

[Pedant watch. I use History with a capital H for the school timetabled/examined subject and history with a small h for the study of the past. Sometimes the distinctions are blurred.]

Marking for exam-candidate pupils should always be related to the standards required in the exam. I suppose all teachers make a close study of the published marking criteria. Familiarise your pupils with these early on and make sure they take them into account as they write. Perhaps I was lucky that both SQA History and OCR History had well designed criteria. Some of the English, Modern Studies and Politics criteria struck me as less good: there might be vagueness, arbitrariness, box-ticking or rules that penalised the best for the sake of standardisation. If your exam board’s criteria are really poor, seek to change boards. Now that I am a tiny cog in the SQA machine I can see that examiners are responsive to pressure from teachers.

What I enjoyed about senior marking was setting up the dialogue with pupils that developed over the year, trying always to get them to think about what they wrote and how they wrote it. I did not usually put grades or marks on their work until relatively late in the course, though I might say things like “This would surely get a B mark from all but the meanest marker” or “This would probably be in the A/B area – safe A if the conclusion added a bit of value to what went before.” Otherwise comments were personal from me to the individual always, as I say, with an effort to get more thought, better methodology and better prose.

With pre-examination years (and I was lucky enough to teach P7 as well as S1 and S2) I made it clear from the start that one of our main aims was to develop writing skills (and thinking skills and reading skills; but they were rarely marked), and that they way to improve a skill was to practice. So they did a lot of writing. In fact my junior English classes would usually hand in some piece of writing, sometimes very brief, after every lesson (we also had quite a strong home-work regime: that’s for another blog-post). This did create a huge volume of stuff to get through, and I did, over a long career, try to work out ways of marking it effectively without the process detracting from other aspects of my work.

The first aim was to encourage them to go on and write more, preferably with purposeful optimism, next time. In extremis (I hope not too many former pupils are reading this) I might merely skim a routine piece of work in order to put a tick at the bottom and some such comment as “Well done to tackle this task so interestingly. Next time do try to stay more focused on the set title”. I was careful not to do this too often to the same class, but I found that getting work returned “by return of post” was so valuable that it was worth marking sketchily in order to achieve this.

When I made the time to mark junior work “properly” my most important principle was to include some praise and some suggestions for further improvement. In about 2006 we had visiting expert on a CPD In Service Day who encouraged us to mark with “Two stars and a wish”. I was able to glance smugly at the Deputy Head, because he knew this had been my strict departmental policy for over twenty years. (It was one of only two strict departmental policies I had. The other was that members of the History department were forbidden to teach boring lessons.) We had no marks, grades or orders. Many of our junior pupils produced work of outstanding quantity and quality for no other reward than a favourable comment, and pride in something well done.

Also, all our junior work was done in jotters, so that the dialogue with the pupil really could build up over the year. I could look back, and so could they. I might say: “If you look back five pages you will see I urged you to check the spellings of “parliament” and “government”. Why have you not done this?” also the nature of the comments would be tailored to the personality of the pupil. I remember one frail but muddled child whose page headed ”The Monk’s Day” was for some reason completely blank. I put “Not a very interesting day”. On the other hand later in the year, as one got to know the chancers, a comment might be: “Three lines in 20 mins is not acceptable. I know you can do more than this….. or else.”

I did make it a personal rule that I never assumed a child was being lazy until there was irrefutable evidence. I think this is really important. An able child who gets away with being lazy for a few weeks has suffered no serious educational damage. A child who has tried hard, but produced little, may be badly set back by harsh comments.

As for those important “nuts and bolts” of English, the trick is to get pupils to keep practising doing them better without causing those who find them hard (and it is rarely for want of trying) to think and write less, so as to make fewer mistakes. This is a matter for constant judgement in individual cases, and compromises.


Everything I have written here makes it sound as though all my marking was wonderful. It wasn’t. I had bad days like everyone else. Also my recent memories are of those relaxed days when I had been able to give up taking a games practice (Oh those hours spent umpiring the 3rd XI on a Saturday!) and my children had left home for University. It was possible to take a stack of jotters to a cafĂ© round the corner from the school and mark and doze in a comfy chair with a mug of double-shot latte and a chocolate slice. My more distant memories are of marking till 2 in the morning while rocking a cradle and after coming in tired from “coaching” thirty eleven year-olds how to pass a rugby ball. Happy days! 

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