Reducing Workload Part 2: Policy vs. Autonomy

Imagine your school brings in a new element of a behaviour policy to tackle student lateness. Now, students who are late to lessons receive an immediate sanction of some sorts. You do your best to uphold the policy, but the teacher next door doesn’t – they feel it’s for the best that students don’t receive a sanction for such a trivial matter. When one teacher fails to follow the policy, it’s pretty inconvenient. Students are annoyed at a lack of consistency and they give you a hard time when you follow the letter of the law. After all, they can get away with their lateness from the teacher next door. Policies such as this may succeed or fail depending on how zealous teachers are. Those who don’t follow the rule, make it harder for those who do. In such scenarios, I’d wager most teachers would be more than happy for the teacher not following the new rule to be reminded of their responsibility – and expect them to change their ways pretty quickly.

Now, imagine another scenario. In this scenario, a teacher is failing to follow the marking policy because, once again, they feel something else is best for their students. Would we feel as aggrieved by their unwillingness to toe the line? If not, why not?

There’s been a lot written about marking recently, perhaps nothing more significant though than Ofsted’s ‘School Inspection Update’, published this November. Referring to the recent publication from the Education Endowment Foundation, the update stated:

there is remarkably little high quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning. So until such evidence is available, and regardless of any area for improvement identified at the previous inspection, please do not report on marking practice, or make judgements on it, other than whether it follows the school’s assessment policy. Also, please do not seek to attribute the degree of progress that pupils have made to marking that you consider to be either effective or ineffective. When reporting, please do not make recommendations for improvement that involve marking, other than when the school’s marking/assessment policy is not being followed by a substantial proportion of teachers; this will then be an issue for the leadership and management to resolve.

(You can read the full updated here)

For someone who has spent much of their career having their competency judged, in part, by the appearance of marking in my students’ books, this was pretty revelatory. Now, moreso than ever, it’s crucial for school’s to create sensible and manageable marking policies. There cannot be any justification of any marking or feedback practices in the name of some higher power,, the onus is on schools to decide what is right for their students and staff.

As well as the update from Ofsted, there’s been some excellent pieces on marking from other sources. David Didau’s piece ‘Marking is an Act of Folly’ and Greg Ashman’s blog on why marking might be a ‘waste of time’ both provide excellent discussion on the differences between marking and feedback, and how feedback, even without the teacher writing lengthly comments, can be much more useful for students. As well as these, an article appearing in the Guardian declared that school marking policies were now ‘officially’ a waste of time and an article in the TES published a couple of days ago proclaimed that ‘the culture of deep marking is dead.’

There has definitely been a forward step taken concerning the discussion of feedback and marking, but I think we’re in danger of getting a little ahead of ourselves. Perhaps these ideas need more to drip down into schools, but I’m certain that excessive, burdensome marking is still the norm for many teachers. Another recent article in the TES caught my eye, putting the blame for excessive marking firmly at the feet of middle managers. In the article, the writer explains how their partner is being ‘pushed to the brink’ by the excessive marking expectations at his ‘seemingly successful’ school. Anecdotally, this matches many of my teacher friends’ experiences at their highly rated schools. I would argue that despite Ofsted’s recent guidelines, and despite the emergence and popularity of feedback routines which save time (here and here), a 2-3 hour slog through a set of books is the normal way of marking for many teachers. And, it’s perfectly normal for this marking, alongside student response (probably in a purple pen) to be a significant aspect of how teachers are judged during appraisals.

Which leads us to the question, what can schools do reasonably to make sure that excessive marking doesn’t drive up workload, especially given the lack of research to explain its efficacy? The answer, I think, is a clear, sensible and manageable marking policy. Such a school policy, with alterations made for different departments, should make teachers’ lives easier. Our job as teachers, then, is to have the strength of will to make it absolutely clear to senior leaders when the marking policy is untenable, digging in our heels and referring to the Ofsted handbook until a reasonable policy is established. And once a reasonable marking policy is established, it’s our job to stick to it.

This may be more of a difficult idea than it seems:

In my first post, I shared the results of a recent twitter poll and made the following assertion:

Whilst no poll is perfect, I think this is good evidence of how much we value teaching autonomy, even if it increases our already burgeoning workload.

If we are serious about workload, we have to be serious about following school policies too.

I’m not suggesting this will be easy for everyone. Many teachers, and managers alike believe marking is absolutely integral to student progress. Because of this, it’s easy for teachers to justify marking long into the evenings and at weekends. But no sensible marking policy can demand this. And once a sensible marking policy is established, we have a duty to uphold it, even if it means sacrificing a bit of our autonomy.

Does this mean that teachers marking in excess of the policy should be intervened with? Although it might make me sound a little unpopular, I think line managers have a duty to intervene in such instances. For younger or more inexperienced teachers, line managers have a duty to protect them from teacher burnout, and show them that successful teachers can work sensible hours. Experienced teachers need to be protected against burn out too, but also need to set good examples to others, especially if these teachers have management responsibilities. You’d be surprised how much newer teachers can be buoyed by seeing their head of department stroll out the building at 4 o’ clock on a Friday without stacks of books under her arms.

Of course, teacher autonomy is still very important when it comes to feedback. Your class is unique. The gaps in their knowledge, the common misconceptions, the steps needed to move their learning forward: all must be addressed by teachers. And no centralised policy alone account for the complexity of this process. A good marking policy should, however, give teachers the time and tools to help them consider these questions.

In my next post and the final of this series, I’ll try to explain what such a marking policy might look like.



3 thoughts on “Reducing Workload Part 2: Policy vs. Autonomy

  1. Really interesting to see autonomy and marking brought together in this way and I agree about the value teachers place on it, and the need to intervene if teachers are marking excessively. I wonder if you’d have got very different answers if you’d posed the reverse question: my marking policy says to mark weekly, I would like to mark fortnightly, should I be allowed?

    • Thanks for the comment Harry, hadn’t thought about reversing the question! My instinct would be that people would feel similarly in that their autonomy should trump policy. I suspect there would have been a much larger outcry about the feasibility of the policy too. If there’s one specific thing I’ve learned from these two blogs, it’s that marking policies are (and should be) far more complex and nuanced than simply ‘every fortnight’ or ‘every X number of lessons’.

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