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Case study: save teachers 2 hours a day with strategic minimal marking

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Last updated on 12 June 2018
School types: All · School phases: Primary
In-depth article
Headteacher Clare Sealy stopped written marking in her primary school and made feedback and pupil self-assessment part of every lesson without compromising on pupil outcomes. This is how she did it, and how you can too.

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Contents

  1. 1 Why the change?
  2. 2 The new approach to marking: writing
  3. 3 The new approach to marking: maths
  4. 4 Trialling and revising the new approach
  5. 5 Providing support to staff
  6. 6 Impact on staff work-life balance
  7. 7 Make this work in your school

Why the change?

The headteacher of St Matthias CofE Primary School in Tower Hamlets, Clare Sealy, felt that their 'deep marking' policy was a burden on staff. Her research into better ways of providing feedback found that:

The new approach to marking: writing

In a nutshell

The teacher scans the work in pupils’ books, makes notes on what has often been misunderstood, and runs through the common misconceptions with the whole class the next day. Pupils have time to look over their own work and correct their mistakes.

In more detail

  1. After a lesson, the teacher looks through the class's work and notes down any common mistakes or misunderstandings
  2. At the start of the next lesson, the teacher shows an example of a piece of good work completed by a pupil (this is not anonymised, and the teacher will aim to use each child’s work at least once)
  3. The teacher highlights the good aspects of the work to the whole class - for example, descriptive language or perfect punctuation
  4. Next, the teacher shows an (anonymised) piece of work that needs some improvement
  5. They correct mistakes and make changes in front of the class
  6. The class then spends 10 minutes working in mixed-ability pairs to proofread their work and make edits as necessary. Alternatively, they may work in groups to proofread a typed-up piece of work
  7. The class then works on editing or redrafting their work. This involves changing the content, and thinking about the effect on the reader and how to move their work to the next level

The approach can be described as ‘strategic minimal marking’. The teacher starts with the assumption that no pupil actually needs much help to edit their work, aside from the scaffolding and modelling you’ve already done in the lesson, and does as little as they need to help them edit. It works on the basis that the whole point of feedback is actually to 'feed forwards', and ensure the pupil knows what to do next time.

Pupils who need more help on something get a prompt when the teacher looks at their books. Teachers write ‘missing words’ or ‘full stops’ so the pupil knows to focus on that. Teachers may also use stamps where a pupil’s work displays a common issue.

If they need even more help, the teacher writes the prompt as above but highlights a specific section to help the pupil find the error.

Pointing out individual errors is the last resort and is only done when a pupil is really struggling.

Verdict: supports mastery in writing

This process takes more in-class time than the previous system of written marking. A whole lesson can be spent reflecting on a previous lesson's work if it was a longer piece of writing.

Consequently, the school runs fewer literacy units than it used to, but this is in line with the school’s 'mastery’ approach: focusing on deeper content knowledge rather than more content coverage. 

Interested, but not sure where to start?

Download our checklist for your next steps.

The new approach to marking: maths

In a nutshell

Pupils are taught to self-check their work in lessons, as they go along. The teacher then doesn't have to take books home and pupils don't have to wait until the next lesson to find out they have misunderstood a concept.

In more detail

  1. In lessons, pupils check their work every 5 questions or so. The teacher uses a visualiser to model ways of checking that lesson’s problems; for example, they might show pupils to add numbers in a different order to check their addition
  2. There is a ‘3 before me’ system for struggling pupils: first they try to fix their mistake themselves, then they ask a peer for help, then a group of their peers, and then finally the teacher
  3. Teachers hand out prompt sheets at the start of the lesson which include questions to help pupils find their mistake
  4. As with writing, after a lesson the teacher looks through the class’s work and notes down any common mistakes or misunderstandings. They will then go through good and bad examples in front of the class
  5. Redrafting in maths looks different from redrafting in writing. Teachers still correct mistakes, but they also ask pupils to do the same problem again in a different way, or try the steps in a different order

Adapting the approach for other lessons

It’s up to staff to use their professional judgement to adapt the system for each lesson. For instance, it might be that the ‘revision’ process just looks different, or that some of the prompts are different.

Trialling and revising the new approach

Clare began implementing the new approach in the last half of the summer term, when she told staff to stop all written marking and to experiment with new ways of giving feedback to pupils – imagining what an alternative system might look like in practice.

To get staff on board, she showed them some of the evidence she had found and explained the reasons for the change. To implement this marking approach in your school, hand out our strategic minimal marking at a glance document for teachers to refer to.

Clare and the literacy co-ordinator analysed the trial period by looking at pupils’ books and reviewing feedback given by staff.

Findings from the trial period

It was quite a mixed picture from staff. Some felt very confident with their chosen approach; some had been less bold and felt unsure. It was also clear that the approach needed revising to help:

  • Lower ability pupils who needed much more scaffolding to make edits
  • More able pupils who could not see faults in their own work

Apart from that, the trial proved the approach was a viable option. Clare implemented the approach the following term, with 3 key changes.

Changes made

  1. The 'editing' section of the lesson has been split into 2 sections: proofreading and editing. Proofreading focuses more on spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Editing focuses on redrafting the content and style of the piece
  2. For pupils who need more help (mostly those in years 1 and 2), a teaching assistant provides a prepared piece of work (which isn't the pupil's own) with one type of error for them to fix. If the pupil needs further help, they'll work on simply highlighting the mistakes as a first step towards being able to edit their own work
  3. Teachers add more challenge for pupils who are more able. They provide pupils with an additional pointer to develop their writing to the next level: they'll tell them to consider the impact on the reader and "think about which other descriptive words could be used to describe X", for example

It became clear that the approach isn't only better for staff workload, it's also better for the pupils

Providing support to staff

Initially

Staff were initially helped to adjust to the changes by:

  • The trial period, which allowed them to get used to it
  • The experimentation they could do, encouraging a sense of ownership
  • A staff meeting at the start of November to explain the adjustments

Staff fully bought in once it became clear that the approach isn't only better for staff workload, it's also better for the pupils.

Clare was careful to clearly set out what staff could stop doing, once this approach was in place. This avoids staff feeling overburdened with new initiatives, and ensures everyone is clear about what to spend time on.

On an ongoing basis

Along with the literacy co-ordinator, Clare conducts drop-in lesson observations to see the approach in practice and provide support where it's needed.

So the year 1 teacher, who had the most difficult job as the approach is harder with younger pupils, observed a lesson taught by the literacy co-ordinator.

Impact on staff work-life balance

Clare said the new approach has had a notable impact on staff work-life balance.

One member of staff told me his marking workload had decreased from 2.5 hours per evening to half an hour.

A blog post written by Clare says that additional benefits are:

  • An independent work scrutiny showed that pupils were making good progress and that books were still full of work, despite half of lesson time being devoted to editing now
  • Teachers set more long writing pieces, now that they aren't worrying about the marking burden
  • Feedback is of a better quality
  • The previous marking policy was overly tied to specific learning objectives, but did not allow time to address other essential issues that occurred in lessons

Clare acknowledges that the approach isn't perfect yet; it’s still being adjusted to ensure that the lower ability and younger pupils can benefit, through teachers providing more scaffolding and help where necessary.

Make this work in your school

For strategic minimal marking to work, you need the following conditions in place:

  • A growth mindset attitude among staff and pupils
  • A culture where pupils are already willing to reflect on their work and respond to feedback
  • Teachers are trusted to use their professional judgement, and senior leaders provide support, not blame, if staff take a while to adjust to the new system
  • The headteacher is willing to engage with research and question widely-held assumptions
  • The headteacher shows strong and decisive leadership, and a commitment to getting staff on board
  • A lack of fear of what Ofsted will say, which comes from faith in the approach and the evidence it is based on

Overcoming potential barriers

For this approach to work, you may have to address any of these potential barriers:

  • Parents may be used to a specific approach and like being able to see the feedback in their child’s book. Our template letter to parents (see below) will help you explain the change, if necessary
  • Fear or misunderstanding of what Ofsted will judge favourably. Our marking mythbuster clarifies Ofsted's position on marking
  • Unwilling or disengaged staff. Read our articles on staff wellbeing if this is a challenge in your school
Clare Sealy is headteacher of St Matthias CofE Primary School in Tower Hamlets. The school has 202 pupils on roll and was rated ‘good’ at its last Ofsted inspection in 2014.

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