Alongside other news on education research in the press today, comes an article in the TES about marking. According to the TES blog, in it Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) argues that we cannot wholly blame Ofsted for the current demands on workload of marking and feedback in schools. I’ll confess that I’ve not yet read the article in the paper, so I don’t intend to challenge this directly, but I do want to explain why I think Ofsted continues to be a driver of workload in this area, and perhaps how this reflects some of its deeper flaws.
Firstly, there can be no doubt that increasingly Ofsted reports have identified marking or feedback as an area for improvement in their recommendations. In fact, it’s quite hard to track down an Ofsted report which doesn’t recommend an improvement in marking and/or feedback, harder still to find one which praises quality of marking. Even among Outstanding school inspections, feedback on feedback is mixed at best. Of the 18 schools currently listed on Watchsted as having a recent Outstanding grade (including, therefore, Outstanding Teaching), just four list marking/feedback as a strength, with a fifth indicating that it is “not Outstanding”.
The limitations of Watchsted meant I could only look at the 10 most recent reports for other categories but in every case, all 10 examples showed that feedback was a recommendation, rather than a strength. It seems that even where schools are graded as Good or Outstanding, it’s difficult to get inspectors to praise marking.
One Outstanding school is hit with both praise and criticism on the matter:
Pupils are given clear guidance on how to improve their work or are set additional challenges in literacy and mathematics. This high quality feedback is not always evident in other subjects.
Ofsted report for Acresfield Community Primary School, Chester
The school is challenged to raise the standards of marking in other subjects to meet the high quality in the core areas.
Another school’s report, which praises the quality of marking in the recommendations, also contains a sting in its tail:
Marking, although not outstanding, promotes an increasingly consistent, and improving high-quality dialogue between teachers and pupils.
Ofsted report for Waddington All Saints Primary School, Lincoln
Later in the report comes that recommendation that the school “Accelerate pupils’ progress even more by ensuring that the marking of pupils’ work consistently promotes even higher quality dialogue between teachers and pupils in all classes.” And this is not an old report; the inspection took place this month!
Is it perhaps the case that marking and feedback has become the ‘go-to’ recommendation for inspectors when needing to justify an outcome, or to find a recommendation to make. Can it really be the case that only 4 schools of the last 200 primary and secondary schools inspected have sufficiently high quality marking and feedback to note it as a strength? Or that it is near impossible to find a school that doesn’t need to significantly improve its marking & feedback?
Here lies the problem with the recent clarification document from Ofsted: it’s all very well saying that inspectors won’t expect to see “unnecessary or extensive written dialogue”, but how does that sit with the recommendation that a school needs to promote “an increasingly consistent, and improving high-quality dialogue between teachers and pupils”. Where do we draw the line between the two?
The reality here lies perhaps somewhere deeper. Are we asking too much of our Ofsted teams? It’s very easy to spot that a school is not achieving results in line with predictions or expectations; its surely much harder to diagnose the causes and recommend a cure.
My own most recent experience of Ofsted was an inspection in which I recognised the outcomes (i.e. area grades) as accurate, but the recommendations as way off the mark. As has become commonplace, alongside our overall grade of Good, marking and feedback was raised as an area to improve, despite the fact that I – and colleagues – felt that other things should have been more pressing. Nevertheless, the nature of system demands that feedback then became a focus of the school, perhaps at the cost of other more important matters.
The problem is exacerbated for schools which are in need of improvement. The race to complete a report in 2 days doesn’t allow thorough diagnosis of the needs of the school, and even then the needs are seemingly reduced to a few bullet points. Any nuance or detail is lost, and it is left to a completely separate HMI to review progress against the targets set. And what better way to show an HMI that marking is improving than to ramp up the quantity?
In discussing this today, Bill Lord (@joga5) quite rightly pointed out that the EEF Toolkit emphasises feedback as one of the key areas to support progress (particularly in relation to Pupil Premium funding, one presumes), and yet even their page quite clearly states on the matter that:
Research suggests that [feedback] should be specific, accurate and clear; encourage and support further effort and be given sparingly so that it is meaningful; provide specific guidance on how to improve and not just tell students when they are wrong; and be supported with effective professional development for teachers.
In his article, Alex Quigley mentions “stories of teachers being forced to undertake weekly marking, regardless of the stage of learning or the usefulness of feedback“. In primary schools it is now common to expect that books are marked daily, and in many cases feedback given as often. The focus here is clearly on the expectations of Ofsted, rather than on the value of the process.
Alex Quigley might be right: we can’t blame Ofsted entirely for this; school leaders do need to take some responsibility and be brave enough to stand up to inspectors who get this wrong. But at the moment, the power is all rather on one side and the consequences fall rather heavily on the other.
It’s a brave school leader who sticks his head above the parapet.