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Case study: reducing marking workload without compromising on pupil outcomes

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Last updated on 8 September 2017
School types: All · School phases: Primary
In-depth article
Headteacher Clare Sealy felt that her school’s marking policy was placing a huge burden on her teachers, and might not be based on evidence. In 2016 she banned written marking in her school and made feedback and pupil self-assessment part of every lesson. This is how she did it, and how you can too.

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  1. 1 Why the change?
  2. 2 The new approach to marking writing
  3. 3 The new approach to marking maths
  4. 4 Trial period
  5. 5 Revising the approach
  6. 6 Providing support to staff
  7. 7 Impact
  8. 8 Could this work in your school?

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Why the change?

St Matthias CofE Primary School in Tower Hamlets had been praised by Ofsted for its ‘deep marking’, which was established practice for the school.

However, headteacher Clare Sealy always felt that it was a burden on the staff, and she decided to look into other ways of providing feedback for the 2016/17 academic year.

To get started, she looked more at the research on marking and feedback and found that:

She also researched into other schools who had publicly said they don't use written marking, such as Michaela Community School in Brent. (At the time, there was no inspection data to show how Ofsted rated the school's approach, but it was judged to be outstanding in all categories in May 2017).

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. There is time for pupils to look over their own work and correct their mistakes.

In more detail

  1. After a lesson, the teacher will look through the classes’ work and note down any common mistakes or misunderstandings
  2. At the start of the next lesson, the teacher will show an example of a piece of good work completed by a student (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. Mistakes are corrected and changes are made in front of the class
  6. The class will then spend 10 minutes working in mixed-ability pairs to proof-read their work and make edits as necessary. Alternatively, they may work in groups to proof-read a typed up piece of work
  7. The class will then work on editing or redrafting their work. This involves changing the content and thinking about the effect on the reader, and thinking about 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 you know what to do next time.

Pupils who need more help on something get a prompt when the teacher looks at their books. Teachers will just write ‘missing words’ or ‘full stops’ so the pupil will know 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 will write the prompt as above but will highlight 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.

Effect on writing lessons

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 anyway: focusing on deeper content knowledge rather than more content coverage. 

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 the lessons, pupils check their work every 5 questions or so. A visualiser is used to model ways of checking that lesson’s problems; for example, pupils might be shown 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 and fix their mistake themselves, then they ask a peer for help, then a group of their peers, then finally the teacher
  3. Prompt sheets are given out at the start of the lesson which include questions to help pupils find their mistake
  4. As with writing, after a lesson the teacher will look through the class’ work and note 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 to redrafting in writing. Mistakes are still corrected, but the teacher will also ask pupils to do the same problem again in a different way, or by trying the steps in a different order

Adapting it 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.

Trial period

In the last half of summer team 2016, Clare told staff to stop all written marking and 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 looked at and explained the reasons for the change.

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

Revising the approach

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. It was implemented in autumn 2016 with 3 key changes.

Changes made

  1. The 'editing' section of the lesson was split into 2 sections: proof reading and editing. Proof reading focuses more on spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. Editing focuses on redrafting the content and style of the piece
  2. For pupils who needed more help, mostly pupils in Y1 and Y2, a teaching assistant gives them a prepared piece of work (which isn't their own) with one type of error for them to fix. If they need further help than this, they'll work on simply highlighting the mistakes as a first step towards being able to edit their own work
  3. More challenge was added for pupils who are more able. They are given an additional pointer to develop their writing to the next level: they'll be told to consider the impact on the reader and "think about which other descriptive words could be used to describe X" for example

Providing support to staff


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 to the changes

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 what to spent 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 Y1 teacher, who had the most difficult job as the approach is harder to do with younger pupils, observed a lesson taught by the literacy co-ordinator.


The approach has had a notable impact on teachers’ work-life balance. Clare said:

“One member of staff told me his marking workload had decreased from two and a half hours per evening to half an hour.”

A blog post written by Clare says that more 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 longer writing pieces now they aren't worrying about the marking burden
  • Feedback is 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 acknowledged 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.

Could this work in your school?

It could, if these conditions are in place:

  • A growth mindset attitude among staff and pupils
  • A culture where pupils already 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 the research and question widely-held assumptions
  • The headteacher shows strong and decisive leadership, and commitment to getting the 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

Potential barriers to consider

Before this type of approach could work, you may have to address any of these potential barriers:

  • Potentially parents who are used to a specific approach, and like being able to see the feedback in their child’s book. Our articles on engaging parents could help you deal with this issue
  • 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.

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