What if some inspectors… are wrong?!

Just recently I got into a brief discussion with a headteacher who happened also to be an Ofsted inspector (and had been re-trained under the new in-house arrangements). I was suggesting that we know relatively little about what constitutes effective marking, and therefore it’s hard to make judgements about what a good policy might look like.

The disagreement was outright. This headteacher maintained, with some considerable confidence, that they could tell whether marking was effective just by looking at a few books.

And I couldn’t disagree more.

For as far as I can tell, there is relatively little (if any) research easily available out there about what constitutes effective marking. The EEF toolkit offers very strong indications that feedback is an effective tool for increasing progress, but feedback and marking are not necessarily synonymous.

The toolkit itself sets out a definition of feedback:

Feedback is information given to the learner and/or the teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals. It should aim to (and be capable of) producing improvement in students’ learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.

none of which requires that feedback be given in the form of written marking.

The problem is, a shared wisdom has grown up around marking that can easily be explained, but not necessarily justified. The explanation is simple: people quite rightly pointed out that if marking didn’t lead to some ‘redirection’ or ‘refocusing’ of the learner’s actions, then it was probably wasted. But rather concluding, therefore, that much written marking was useless, instead the presumption became that all marking would be effective if out led to some sort of action. So the marking load continued to increase, and the complexity with it.

I can’t see anywhere that it shows that that was the right conclusion to reach, but it has now become so widely held a view, that it’s hard to argue against. What’s worse: it’s very easy to go from that perceived wisdom to thinking one can spot effective marking. I can certainly identify marking that meets the expected norms of dialogue and “DIRT” and the like. But that’s not necessarily the same as it being effective.

My personal view – equally unsupported by evidence – is that the vast majority of marking is wasteful. As I’ve said before, there’s a real diminishing return after more than a few seconds of looking at work, and by the time it has been marked in detail and acted upon, that return may well be negated by the effort expended. (See Is marking the enemy of feedback?) A whole host of feedback can occur (both to teacher and student) without a pen ever touching the page.

I don’t suggest scrapping marking, but merely point out that whether I’m right or not is frankly academic.

Because for all the clarification documents in the world from Ofsted, nothing will give me the freedom to demonstrate that I can be equally effective without excess marking all the time there are inspectors who believe that they can tell effective marking just by looking at it. The argument from authority of inspectors is impossible to fight against.

And it’s not the first time it’s happened. I’ve had more than one public ‘spat’ in recent months with inspectors who argue that they know better. And it’s easy for them to claim they know better because they’ve been trained. Or they’re well-qualified. Or they’ve been inspecting for x years.

But what if we don’t know? What if that confidence is false? What if what hundreds of inspectors think is ‘effective marking’ is actually just wasteful annotation, but there’s no evidence to show otherwise?

I don’t know if I’m right. I may well not be. But I’m not yet convinced that people like the inspectors I’ve talked to recently are either. Unfortunately, all the time they have authority on their side, they can maintain their false confidences in what they believe that should see.

And no amount of ‘clarification’ from the top will make the slightest difference, all the time inspectors are free to state without a hint of doubt that they know what effective marking looks like. So woe betide any of us who doesn’t conform to their expectations.

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7 thoughts on “What if some inspectors… are wrong?!

  1. Kate 1 July 2015 at 7:54 pm Reply

    I wonder what a research project into what DOES make effective marking might look like? Perhaps we could start one in a few schools. I know my staff put a lot of time and effort into it in the hope that a) it will make a difference to children’s progress and b) it will satisfy an inspector (we too are RI). I hope the first is a bigger motivator than the second but I’m not always sure… We have certainly changed our practice to ensure children have specific time to reflect on and respond to marking which means it as least LESS wasted than it used to be. Anyone up for some research??

    • Leah K Stewart 2 July 2015 at 3:15 pm Reply

      Hey Kate, I’d personally love to see what would happen if no inspector automatically had authority to inspect without a teacher invitation. I’m of the belief that if teachers had full choice as to who came to inspect their work, they would choose people who they know would challenge them (as long as there’s not a feeling that they’d be fired for being challenged…which is another issue). What would happen if challenges could not be rubber-stamp with one-sided, conversation-killing authority but instead part of a two-way discussion where both parties might go away wiser. Too much to hope for? I hope not.

  2. cazzypot2013 1 July 2015 at 8:21 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. Mark Bennet 1 July 2015 at 11:37 pm Reply

    The Education Endowment Foundation report of today (1 July 2016) on PUPIL PREMIUM Next Steps has this on page 17 in a section on misinterpretation of their research:

    “Another more recent example concerns effective feedback which the toolkit found to be one of the best bets to improve pupil outcomes. An increased focus on feedback among school inspectors, partly prompted by this finding, however has led to an unhelpfully narrow focus on marking in schools, which is just one element of effective feedback.”

    See https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/uploads/pdf/Pupil_Premium_Summit_Report_-_FINAL_EDIT.pdf

  4. teachwell 2 July 2015 at 9:01 am Reply

    Indeed Sean Harford needs to define what feedback is – marking is only one type and that just as Ofsted can not prescribe teaching methods they should not be able to prescribe one type of feedback alone.

    I know this means top down but if it is defined then it makes the case stronger. However, Sean also needs to look at the complaint procedures and take a bit more seriously when inspectors are not following the guidelines set.

    The truth is that the excessive written feedback (which led to the inevitable conclusion that verbal feedback should be written down…. ) meant that I spent less time giving verbal feedback, less time reflecting and less time adjusting lessons and making resources because at the end of the day there are only so many hours. In addition, all the children responding to marking took time from learning they could have been doing. Instead of completing a scaffolded next step we could have just focused on this in the lesson and this would have achieved more.

    I say this as someone who hates marking but did it every day and whose marking was considered exemplary. However, when marking became non-stop and an end to itself (which it has) it restricts decision making on the part of teachers. As we have seen this is to the detriment of the children we teach. Also, isn’t it time that we stopped asking good and outstanding teachers to constantly change their practice in favour of the fad of the day. It’s as though they want even those who can cope to fail. Ridiculous.

  5. julietgreen 2 July 2015 at 7:51 pm Reply

    I had a very similar conversation in the staff meeting yesterday, when I was trying to explain that marking was only one form of feedback and that the latest briefing from ofsted was that they would not expect to see a specific type, frequency or quantity of marking, but that they would want to see that feedback was used to make a difference. The immediate response I got from S L was that they would want to see that all work was marked.

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