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Marking Policy Review – Tilted Perspectives

We’ve already had a workload review from the DfE. It didn’t achieve much. Still, at the end of last year the DfE announced another review, with three panels created to assess the impact of workload in our schools – Marking, Data and Planning. One can hardly doubt that this is in response to the recruitment and (more significantly) retention crisis facing our schools, however much Nick Gibb might deny that such an issue exists. Still, I thought I would blog a few thoughts, specifically about its Marking Policy Review panel, as I believe this to be the key driver of so many workload issues facing teachers today. Below are three key areas where, and why, I think it will be disappointingly limited in perspective.

 

School contributors

Nine representatives from schools have been invited to contribute to the panel. These are:

 

St. George’s RC Primary School – inspected 2007, interim letter 2011 – Grade 1

Churchend Primary – inspection 2008 (EY 2015), academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Wensley Fold CofE Primary Academy – inspected 2009, academy conversion 2013 – Grade 1

Shaw Primary Academy – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2013 – Grade 2

Plantsbrook School – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Rise Park – inspected 2011, academy conversion 2014 – Grade 2

Barr Beacon School – inspection 2014, academy conversion 2012,  – Grade 1

The Wroxham School – inspection 2014, academy conversion 2012 – Grade 1

Portsmouth High School – no OFSTED inspection

 

So what does this tell us? That the majority of schools contributing to a review of marking policy and workload have had no recent contact with OFSTED, and the majority have been graded as outstanding (with a couple ‘good’) meaning they have had no negative recent contact with OFSTED either. Of the nine schools represented, seven have not had an OFSTED inspection in four years or more – in that same time other schools could have had two or three.

This really matters. As I have written previously.

It should be noted that those schools graded ‘outstanding’ and ‘good’ have more latitude in being magnanimous with their marking policies. I wish they would keep this in mind when proclaiming to the rest of the world how else it could be done. It is no surprise that schools in the lower grade categories implement such onerous policies upon their staff (further reinforcing that cycle which really they need to break.) After all, at the very least they need to show that Something Is Being Done.  Yet those at the top end, with consistently strong results and the kind of intake that almost locks in the top category grades (hot air about coasting schools notwithstanding) can experiment with different strategies and a more imaginative marking approach that will be tolerated by inspection teams so long as positive results keep landing on the doormat each August.

Those at the bottom simply do not have that freedom. And in fairness it might be considered reckless to do so: should they try, then they immediately hand OFSTED a great big stick to hit them with should their results fail to do anything other than transform overnight.

In other words, a huge blind spot appears – the impact OFSTED inspections can have on workload and marking policies, particularly in those schools given a poor grading (we’ll leave for now the correlative link between socio-economic indicators and OFSTED gradings). Meaning that those schools whose workload issues derive from OFSTED intervention and feedback, and the necessity that this should be the case, are without a direct voice.

This seems such an obvious statement, and such an evident issue, that one would naturally be inclined to question why such perspectives should not be included. To suggest, as some might, that outstanding schools are designated as such precisely because of the impact of their marking and feedback policies, such that their wisdom and best-practice should be allowed to trickle down to those who need to improve, is such a flimsy and disingenuous claim that I’m doubtful anybody would ever seriously make it. As such, it would not be a huge leap of the imagination to wonder if the composition of the panel might just be ordered toward downplaying the detrimental impact OFSTED can have on schools, and more particularly the workload and well-being of the staff in those schools upon whom it delivers its judgement.

 

Perspectives 

I would never suggest that any one full-time classroom teacher has a harder time with marking than any other. I simply couldn’t know and wouldn’t presume to ask – I assume that every subject has its unique challenges and every teacher works hard to meet them. I would also be unwilling to say that marking in secondary is any tougher than it is in primary, or vice-versa – I take it is as axiomatic that the demands of each are excessive, and trying to turn this into a comparative issue for bragging rights is not particularly helpful.

However, it is a truism that the nature of a marking policy can impact different departments in different ways. For example, to take a secondary marking policy, then (all things being equal) a policy with a specific focus on literacy intervention is going to have a different impact on PE than it will, say, History (which is not to downplay the extensive commitments PE colleagues have to after-school activities, which History doesn’t). This is just a statement of the obvious.

And this is important. A typical humanities teacher in a secondary school could have 17+ classes with 30+ children. That is 500 children per week – not to mention homework and assessment. And, being a literacy-based subject, there will tend to be copious amounts of writing. This means its challenges are unique – even different from other literacy based subjects, the obvious example being English, with fewer classes (6? 7?) and smaller sets, and more opportunity (due to much more regular contact) to be able to implement the feedback and marking strategies directed within a marking policy.

Again, this is not to downplay different challenges or to indulge in comparative tales of woe – marking the sheer amount of writing students must get through in English is a challenge I would not relish – but it is important to ensure alternative perspectives are given airing. Yet on this panel, of the three secondary schools represented (one an independent all-through school), there is just one contributor who seems to have a full-time teaching/marking timetable, a teacher of MFL, the other two contributors being a Deputy Head and a Head of English at an independent school (another of the independent contributors, David Didau, was also a former Head of English.) Indeed, of the nine represented schools, the composition is: one Executive Headteacher, two Headteachers, one Deputy Headteacher, one Assistant Headteacher, one Head of English (independent school), and three class teachers, two with TLR responsibility, both of whom are primary based.

In other words, of a panel of 14, there is just one voice representing the challenges of a full-time secondary teacher. Considering the recruitment but, perhaps more significantly, retention challenges facing secondary, I’m not convinced this is sufficient. Indeed, so far as listening exercises, it feels a bit tin-eared.

 

Geography

Finally, here’s the contributing schools mapped (I have put the two secondary schools in yellow, with the third being an all-through school):

marking

Notice anything? We northerners, so frequently told we need to get up to speed, to get with the game, nonetheless rarely seem to find ourselves with a voice at the table and are hugely under-represented when we do (this applies to ‘the regions’ more generally). For example, taking all the three DfE workload panels as a whole, London has more representatives than the whole of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cumbria, Cornwall, Dorset, Somerset, Northumbria, and East Englia put together.* As Laura McInerney put it recently, the North is sick of being gawped at – get us involved.

On a related note, I have to confess to being a bit angry when I first saw that Sir Michael Wilshaw had decided to aim his Piety Pistols at the North in a recent speech. Not because our kids don’t deserve better – but because there is already an institutional inequality that neither he, nor OFSTED, nor politicians ever seem willing to grasp when taking potshots at those of us exhausting ourselves at the coalface. After reading the speech a couple of times, I cooled a bit – Wilshaw does offer up a recognition of the need for political will, but mostly just as another angle from which to have a dig at northern education, and his superficial recognition of some of the challenges northern education faces (such as recruitment, training and leadership) yet contain no consideration whatsoever of the pernicious and corrosive influence OFSTED itself has on these key challenges (I have written of some of them here). After all, when Sir Michael was working wonders in Hackney he was getting £10,335 per student; a Headteacher in Stockton-on-Tees, of Benefits Street fame, can expect to receive around £4,486 and then be told their results have to be the same. Wilshaw is right to say poverty is not excuse – however, lack of funding clearly is.

 

Conclusion

The make-up of contributing schools to this policy review is largely southern, outstanding/good, and without recent OFSTED experience – with an obvious tilt toward primary.

I am not questioning the integrity or value of any contributors – I’m sure they all have vital insights to share – but this feels like a missed opportunity to really get broad and diverse testimony about the issues facing many in our school system today. Some topics, if not off-limits, are certainly beyond the recent collective experience of the schools represented. As such, one can’t but help feel there will be a tilted perspective, away from the realities of teachers working in our toughest schools, where recruitment and retention is most difficult, and where workload plays a huge part in that. And indeed, where OFSTED plays a huge part in that. As such, I’m not sure there any grounds to be optimistic that this workload review will be any more effective than the previous one.

___________________________

*the wider composition of all three panels joined together can be seen here (for the sake of ease I have not listed all the schools of the Ark Schools or the Rowan Learning Trust, both of whom appear on the Data Management Review Group – the Ark network consists of 34 schools based in London, Portsmouth, Hastings and Birmingham, whilst the Rowan Learning Trust has 3 schools, two in Wigan and one in Liverpool. Link: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?hl=en_US&app=mp&mid=zOHsNRts1Djg.kmuSw4yDOKuo

 

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