The trouble with Ofsted and marking…

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.

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11 thoughts on “The trouble with Ofsted and marking…

  1. cazzypot2013 31 October 2014 at 9:37 am Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Brian Lockwood 31 October 2014 at 10:11 am Reply

    Very interesting. If only we could measure how much notice children take of notes written to them in their exercise books. Beyond the mark, precious little I suspect. Unfortunately, Ofsted cannot measure the crucial bit of praise or feedback delivered verbally and not necessarily i the classroom.

    A well judged word in the lunch queue can be worth a tedium of paragraphs in the exercise book but no one else will ever hear it or indeed need to hear it.

  3. Henny_penny 31 October 2014 at 6:08 pm Reply

    Hear hear. We have to provide an EBIF challenge in every subject every time we mark-this of course is daily in maths and literacy. Having taught for some years now, I’m not sure it accelerates pupils’ progress any more than the days when I gave a follow up task when I felt it would be useful – either for the pupil or for me to see whether I could push them on. I feel that my judgement is becoming less and less valued as we are now marking to a particular strategy. SLT are completely open about the fact that “this is what Ofsted want to see”. Sigh.

  4. […] Blogs and commentary about marking, feedback and Ofsted expectations are swarming the Twitter threads at the moment. Discourse and argument abound with helpful, insightful and erudite posts like these from Mary Myatt, Heather Leatt,Teacher Toolkit and Michael Tidd. […]

  5. Village Headteacher 3 November 2014 at 8:14 pm Reply

    Surely there must be an expectation that books are marked before returning them to pupils?
    I don’t regard this as an unfair demand on primary staff, I regard it as part of their job. If you have not bothered to read what the children have done during the session how do you know what they should do next?how do you plan the next day? For maths and English that does mean books being marked on a daily basis. It’s part of the job, get on with it.

    • Michael Tidd 3 November 2014 at 10:16 pm Reply

      I rather suspect this reply won’t be read, given that your post was anonymous, but I’ll respond all the same.
      You may well regard daily marking as part of your staff’s job, but I rather suspect that you’ve missed the point of marking. Firstly, it is not always necessary to read a piece of written work to know whether or not a child has understood or learned something. Secondly, it is not always possible to “complete” work in a single lesson to provide such evidence. Thirdly, it is not necessary to write a single word, or so much as a tick, to have sufficiently ascertained what next steps are needed for a child or for the class. Fourthly, if you are marking all English and Maths books every day (alongside planning, teachers’ meetings, parents’ evenings, etc.) then I’d argue that the quality of your marking is limited at best.
      The point I’ve made in the blog seems to have passed you by: the most important aspect here is feedback, not marking. If you are the sort of headteacher who judges the quality of feedback by the quantity of red pen in books (or the frequency with which it is applied), then I rather suspect that you are exactly the sort of leader which I believe is the cause of this endemic problem in schools of valuing what can be evidenced over what is actually having an impact on learning. It may make for beautifully-presented books, but don’t be fooled into thinking that more marking = more learning.
      I’ll point you, once again, to the line in bold in the text, taken from the EEF/Sutton Trust toolkit stating that to be effective feedback should “be given sparingly so that it is meaningful”.

  6. A Primary Deputy 4 November 2014 at 12:26 am Reply

    I rather suspect that our fabulous ‘Village Headteacher’ has been out of the classroom for too long (or wasn’t actually that effective when in the classroom). As Michael and others have pointed out, feedback has to be effective – marking, on the other hand, isn’t inherently effective but does take a ridiculous amount of time to complete. “…[not] an unfair demand on primary staff.” Hmmm… Try it. How do you (as class teacher) know what your pupils have done? A good teacher will use a wide range of assessment techniques throughout a session and over time to build up a solid picture of achievement. Feedback may well include written examples, such as marks in books but more often will be targeted verbal feedback, guided support, body language, etc, etc. I think few would argue that there is no place for marking at all. However, to suggest that neglecting to mark books daily somehow prevents you from knowing anything of the needs of your class is simply ridiculous! I believe it highlights a complete lack of understanding on the part of the Village Headteacher – their own personal understanding but also the knowledge they have of their own staff of which I am glad I’m not one. Perhaps, if laboriously marking every book, every day is the only way she/he believes the teachers in her/his school are able to assess how well pupils are doing, this Headteacher should be working to develop more effective assessment and feedback techniques among her/his staff – she/he might even learn something. However, it may well be the case that this Headteacher simply doesn’t really know her/his staff and the quality of teaching in the school and so has nothing else to fall back on other than how much marking is in books. Perhaps, Village Headteacher, you need to “get on with [your] job” and support the development of effective practice in your school.

  7. Village Headteacher 4 November 2014 at 1:22 pm Reply

    I appear to have touched a raw nerve – let me clarify, I teach a day a week, and mark everything that is produced by the children during that day. I also give feedback where necessary which is devised to be acted upon prior to the children going home.
    I am fully aware of the range of different assessment strategies available to staff and have been even known to use them myself now and again. I also place value on both marking and feeding back – and am fully aware of the difference between the two.
    However in my school it is accepted that if children undertake some written work we will mark it prior to returning it to them, which in the case of maths and English will usually mean before the next session. This is done to ensure that a) the child’s effort is recognised b) misunderstandings can be identified and rectified and c) feedback can be given as necessary. All of the previous should be used by the teacher to reshape their lesson the next day.
    I am sorry if my ‘fabulous’ deputy colleague fails to agree with me, bit I am pleased he/she can make so many generalisations about my career based on a single post. As it is we have no vacancies at present, and the team of staff I have around me are perfectly happy to undertake what, in essence, they expect of themselves.
    Most staff working an 8.00-5.15 day have over 3 hours to mark/ assess / prepare for the next day –

  8. Michael Tidd 4 November 2014 at 5:02 pm Reply

    Thank you for responding.
    There are a couple of points I’d raise here. Firstly, teaching one day a week alongside headship responsibilities is challenging, no doubt, but it’s not the same as being a full-time classteacher. If I’m with my class every day, I don’t have the same need for immediately marking work that you do. I can manage my workload myself to provide the most timely and effective feedback, while also making the best and most effective use of my time.
    You make the point about generalisations made by another commenter, but you have made them also. You exclaimed “It’s part of the job, get on with it” as though those of us who choose not to follow your model are in some way neglecting our roles; is that not just as rash a statement?
    I have pointed you to the evidence on the effectiveness of feedback; you have responded about your school’s approach. I am not suggesting that your approach is wrong; but you are wrong to suggest that we should all be doing it because you are. I happen not to agree with the suggestion that if a piece of work hasn’t been ‘red-penned’ then somehow children will feel that their effort is not recognised; that is not the ethos of my classroom. Indeed I would argue that such extrinsic motivations are a negative in our systems. That said, I don’t know your school and you may well make it work for you.
    My issue with your argument is not that you have a different opinion, but that you appear to be the sort who has looked down on others taking different approaches, even though they may be as effective, or moreso, than your own. You may choose to run your school in that way, but there is no evidence that your prescriptivism is any more effective than any other approach; you are free to use it but your tone about those who choose not to agree suggests that your arrogance exceeds your expertise.

  9. Village Headteacher 4 November 2014 at 6:23 pm Reply

    your tone about those who choose not to agree suggests that your arrogance exceeds your expertise.

    I think we can both make assumptions about tone?

    The thrust of my post is that I do believe teachers need to have read/marked a piece of work prior to teaching the next session to make a judgement regarding how that lesson progressed. Whilst I appreciate teachers can offer a range of support in a class of 30, at the end of the lesson the proof of the learning would be in the outcome, the majority of which would be written. To progress and move onto the next page of planning without considering what had been achieved, and to refine / alter groupings based on achievements is surely a disaster waiting to happen.
    If work is challenging and stretching I want to know how well the children have achieved, and if that needs adjusting in the next session. I don’t believe this can be done if work is not read/marked

  10. Michael Tidd 4 November 2014 at 6:56 pm Reply

    Not all lessons have a written outcome. Written outcomes do not always show what has been learned; only what has been written. Not all lessons need to be adapted on the basis of the written outcomes of the previous lesson. Your argument that “the proof of the learning” is in the outcome suggests a simplistic understanding of what constitutes learning to me.
    If you subscribe to a view of learning like that then daily marking makes sense. I have a different view that suggests that learning doesn’t happen in single lessons; that not all lessons depend on their position in a sequence, and that not all written outcomes are useful in ascertaining success.
    I think your most significant comment is in your final few works: there is a big difference between reviewing work completed and marking it. I can quickly look at 30 books and judge next steps for my teaching; this I consider to be good use of feedback. If I then waste an hour writing in each book to prove (to some headteacher or inspector or other) that I’ve done it, then I’ve wasted an hour.
    I suspect we will not agree on the quantity of marking required, and that’s fine. You are free to have that policy in your school; that doesn’t make it “part of the job” that I should just “get on with”. That’s an attitude that I find unacceptable.

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