On your marks

Sir Kevan Collins on how evidence-informed marking policies could lead to a better work-life balance for teachers.

For many teachers, the idea that their working day ends the minute they step outside school is laughable; evenings spent marking work and planning lessons at home are all too often just part of the job. A recent Trades Union Congress (TUC) study found that teachers are more likely to work unpaid overtime than staff in any other industry.

For a profession in the midst of a recruitment crisis, this isn’t a great advertisement for a healthy work-life balance.

Marking is one of the most contentious issues in the debate around teacher workload and expectations to mark large quantities of work are almost certainly having an adverse effect on teachers’ morale. Over half of the 44,000 respondents to the Department for Education’s 2014 Workload Challenge said the reform of marking policies was the highest priority for decreasing their unsustainable workloads. When you consider that the typical teacher will spend nine hours each week marking their pupils’ work, this is no surprise.

But where is the balance to be struck? If marking is to continue to be a significant part of teachers’ workload then we need to be sure that it is having a positive impact on pupil progress. This is why we commissioned A Marked Improvement, an important piece of research published today that tries to establish how teachers can use the time they spend on marking in the most effective ways.

Researchers at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford reviewed existing research and found a significant disparity between the enormous amount of effort teachers invest in marking and the research available to tell them which marking approaches are effective and which are not. Alarmingly, considering the importance of feedback to pupils’ progress, they found there have been very few large-scale and robust studies that have looked at marking.

What today’s report tells us is that we just don’t know whether or not the time teachers are spending on marking is having a positive effect on pupil outcomes.

To find out more about how teachers are marking work, we commissioned a national survey of through the National Foundation for Educational Research’s Teacher Voice Omnibus. The teachers were asked about ten marking strategies of which the most commonly used was writing targets for improvement. What we found is that teachers are combining a number of different approaches to cover the multiple purposes of marking pupils’ work, including monitoring progress, planning future lessons and school reporting. This suggests that teachers are not replacing new strategies with old, but simply adding to the workload of marking.

For example, almost three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed reported that they wrote targets for improvement on all or most pieces of work they mark. However we found that this approach hasn’t replaced identifying and correcting errors, a more traditional approach to marking, which over 50% of teachers said they did on all or most pieces of work they mark.

So what can senior and middle leaders do to ensure their teachers are able providing constructive and useful feedback to their pupils? Rather than relentlessly pursuing unproven and unsustainable approaches, a guiding principle might be to mark less, but mark better, informed by what the evidence tells us so far is likely to have the most impact.

Instead of looking to ideological debates to find a solution, we need to be guided by robust research. This is why we’ve committed £2m to fund research to find out what the most time-effective marking strategies are. But until we do have a better idea about which marking strategies are the most effective, is it so radical to allow our teachers a better work-life balance? My bet is doing so will lead to happier, healthier and more content workforce.