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Case study: how one 'outstanding' secondary school cut its marking workload by 75%
Barr Beacon School cut down teachers' marking time to less than an hour a day by banning detailed written marking and improving the way staff give feedback to pupils. Read on and download this school's marking policy and other resources to learn how you can make this happen too.
- Why the move away from written marking?
- Approach to marking in a nutshell
- Approach to marking in more detail
- Initial on-boarding process and trial period
- Adapting this approach for different subjects
- The positive impact on staff work-life balance
- Make this work in your school
Why the move away from written marking?
The deputy headteacher of Barr Beacon School, David Lowbridge-Ellis, banned detailed written marking as part of a wider campaign to reduce teacher workload. He made this decision because:
- The school's 2014 Ofsted judgement found that marking was not 'consistent' across the school
- Teachers were then trying to make marking look the same in every subject, which was actually counterproductive
- One of their teachers, Michael Eszrenyi, represented the school on the DfE marking policy review group and fed back to the school about what 'meaningful feedback' looked like in practice
- David recognised that teachers were martyring themselves, but he knew that giving them time to refresh would result in better outcomes for pupils
Approach to marking in a nutshell
1. The feedback approach centres around teachers asking their pupils the following 2 questions:
- What are you doing well in this subject?
- What do you need to do to improve your work in this subject?
If pupils can answer these questions accurately, using subject-specific detail, the school is confident that they are receiving effective feedback.
2. To make this happen, teachers build in dedicated lesson time, or entire lessons, for feedback. This includes activities such as working from prompt sheets, peer marking, analysing model examples, working through sample questions as a class, and self-correction.
3. Feedback is subject-specific
4. Feedback is very pupil-centric. It is essential that pupils work as hard as their teachers
5. Only significant pieces of work are 'marked' by the teacher
What is Ofsted's stance on marking?
Read our marking mythbuster, where we de-bunk some common myths around Ofsted's expectations for marking.
Approach to marking in more detail
Teachers give each pupil a green pen at the beginning of the year, and David explains how they should use it in an assembly. It is a way of ensuring from the very start that the onus is on the pupil to take in feedback and process it. The green pen is used in different ways for different subjects, e.g. correcting answers in maths and setting targets in English.
Some teachers saw spending lesson time on feedback as a waste of time, because pupils weren’t 'learning something new', even if they were filling in knowledge gaps that remained from previous lessons, or consolidating information. Getting over this perception was a major hurdle. David removed grades from lesson observations so that teachers didn't feel they had to put on a show. Now, teachers are not afraid to spend even entire lessons on feedback if necessary.
Reporting to parents
The school records only 6 data entries per year (and is even considering reducing this number). All grades are teacher-generated.
- At KS3, this is a 'working at' grade: a percentage rounded to the nearest 5% based on how many subject-specific objectives the pupil has met
- At KS4, this is an expected grade for the end of the GCSE course
- At KS5, this is a 'working at' grade
- All Key Stages also have effort grades (one for classwork, one for homework)
Teachers use this data to generate reports. They also provide guidance to help parents understand how well their child is doing based on this data (see a sample report below). The school's policy of ensuring that pupils know their strengths and weaknesses at all times ensures that parents will always know how their child is performing.
Many subjects use a coding system to save teachers' time. If the teacher sees the same mistakes in books all the time, they write a code next to it and feed back on the most common codes to the whole class in the next lesson, providing pupils with time to correct their own work.
Teachers review pupils' notes once every half term and provide feedback on how they can make their lesson notes more effective using this sheet:
Initial on-boarding process and trial period
To introduce a new marking approach in your school, David recommends the following steps:
- Sit down with staff to find out how they are currently marking and how long they are spending on marking. At Barr Beacon, this involved informal chats with individual staff, followed by a voluntary meeting for anyone interested in changing how they mark. David then met with heads of department and compared everyone's answers
- Conduct a parent forum or parents' evening to gather their views about marking, and feedback more generally (David did this in the summer term)
- Follow this with a letter to inform parents that the feedback system is changing. Download David's example letter below
- Carry out whole school continuing professional development (CPD) for all staff in order to explain your research and rationale for changing marking, as well as explaining how you want staff to mark from this point onward (David did this in September)
- Instruct staff to break off into subject areas to discuss how they might change things and to evaluate different approaches. Encourage them to collaborate with each other, take bits from their colleagues' approaches and adapt them to suit their subject
- Begin with a 'marking vacuum', allowing teachers to ‘mark how they like’. At Barr Beacon, most people had tried something new in the first few months
- Collect examples from different subject areas (see below, in ‘Adapting this approach for different subjects’), and share them
- Lead by example. Encourage staff to watch the senior leadership team (SLT) teach and see some of the feedback strategies in action. This helps to reassure teachers that they have the permission to do things differently, but also showcases the effectiveness of the new strategies to any doubters
David gathered a team of 15 staff with a range of experience and disciplines (including newly qualified teachers and more senior staff) to create the following dos and don'ts cheat sheet, which formed part of the official marking policy.
Building in time for termly monitoring is essential. You can’t leave it alone or teachers will slip back into bad habits.
This is how monitoring works at Barr Beacon:
- Ongoing CPD (6 twilight sessions a half term, with a day off in lieu)
- Informal drop-ins from senior leaders. Do not use these findings for performance management, but as a way to monitor marking throughout the school and provide support where needed
- Termly reviews of pupils' work by the SLT, using proformas designed specifically with workload in mind (download an example below)
- Observations of other teachers' and senior leaders' lessons to see the methods in practice. This reassures teachers that less marking is OK, and they are still good at their jobs even if books aren't fully marked at all times
- A fluid policy – if people have better ideas, they bring them forward. Regularly ask staff if they’ve discovered a new and better way of marking
Adapting this approach for different subjects
You can adapt many of the ideas below to use them across different subjects.
- Pupils correct much of their own work in class, as there is usually only one correct answer. The teacher circulates and looks at books to check that this is being done properly, see how well pupils are doing and understand what to focus on in future lessons
- Instead of writing out the same correction twice, teachers write out the calculation once, take a photo and then print it out on sticky labels. When pupils see what they've done wrong, the whole class completes a new (but similar) question on the whiteboard. It might not save much time but is less repetitive for the teacher
- Staff do not mark everything. They mark ‘significant pieces’ e.g. extended writing - usually 1 every half term
- Teachers print off a mark scheme for each pupil that covers assessment objectives (AOs). They read through pupils’ work and highlight parts of the mark scheme that still need attention. They may also make comments on spelling and grammar, etc. using a coding system
- Pupils spend time in the next class going back over their work in response to the teachers’ comments. The teacher then focuses on one particular learning outcome as a class, and addresses any misconceptions using the coding system
For exam practice:
- Teachers hand out booklets containing anonymised example essays from previous years for pupils to keep
- They spend many lessons analysing the example essays before pupils write their own work
- The teacher reads through each pupil's work and highlights relevant areas of the mark scheme to see what they included and what was missing from their responses. Pupils then read through their work themselves and make the necessary corrections and improvements
- The teacher then takes a picture of a pupil's work for the next lesson so the whole class sees examples of the mark scheme in action, highlighting good practice and areas for improvement
- Pupils stick assessment objectives into the front of their books so they are always there to refer to, and feedback is always in relation to them. Teachers can simply write, for example, AO4 and pupils will know what to work on, or where to find out
- Teachers use stickers and pre-made stamps for quick feedback on progress, spelling, etc.
- Teachers use dedicated lesson time to give more extensive verbal feedback and for pupils to conduct peer assessment
- Like in English, 'significant pieces' of work have a designated marking proforma with the AOs on it and room for teachers' comments
For mock exams:
- After working through exam questions as a class, teachers provide pupils with short worksheets for them to self-reflect on their performance and identify areas to improve. Download an example of a history mock exam self-assessment below
- When reviewing A-level psychology exams, teachers make notes of the most common mistakes and misconceptions on a pre-made sheet as they mark. They then distribute the sheet in class and pupils work through the answer again together
- Pupils stick a standardised list of around 20 numerical codes in the front of their books. These include things like 'subject-object agreement' and 'word order'. Teachers use these codes when marking work. Pupils gradually learn to recognise the codes by heart
- Teachers provide verbal feedback immediately after speaking exercises and assessments
- In PE, teachers issue multicoloured pens to GCSE and A-Level pupils, and insist they write in different colours when they are hitting different assessment objectives. This ensures pupils are constantly reflecting as they write. You can also adapt this approach for many subjects that use AOs in written pieces (English, humanities, etc.)
The positive impact on staff work-life balance
The school is now doing a quarter of the marking it was doing a year ago, and teachers have unanimously reported that David’s new marking strategy has had a positive impact on their work-life balance.
"I actually have a life outside of teaching now. I've got time with my boys and I've also got around to learning Spanish, which I've been wanting to do for years."
"I've got a great work-life balance. My husband not so much, but that's because he doesn't teach here."
Teachers also reported that they have far more time to spend on planning effective classes and seeing the ‘bigger picture’ of the curriculum.
Make this work in your school
To follow David's example and cut marking time in your school, you'll need the following conditions in place:
- Staff must know what effective feedback looks like
- Staff should constantly question why they are marking something. The sheet below offers some alternative ideas to traditional marking, including subject-specific approaches
- A marking policy that allows for subject-specific variation
- A single person to drive the change, and to be passionate about both improving teachers’ workload and quality of student feedback. Appoint a member of the SLT to oversee the marking overhaul, from initial on-boarding to constant maintenance of good practice
- An SLT that pays attention to staff, gives them time and permission to do things differently and trusts their professional judgement to do their own thing
- An SLT that is very visible within school and in and out of lessons a lot
Typical barriers to implementing this approach successfully
- An overly prescriptive marking policy that loses sight of what feedback is about and/or is written out of fear of the tiny minority of staff who might not pull their weight
- Staff finding it difficult to let go of things they think work, rather than trying things that work better. The initial on-boarding period is really important in getting staff on board here
- Winning around staff who are new to the school and getting them to get rid of bad habits. David suggests visiting them regularly to provide extra support
Barr Beacon School is an academy in Walsall. It was graded ‘outstanding’ in its last Ofsted inspection in 2014. It has 1,527 pupils on roll.
See David’s “47 things” Barr Beacon is doing to improve staff wellbeing here.
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