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Mark my words, this idea stinks


Roll up! Roll up! Read all about it! Miracle cure for the UK’s ailing and failing school system! As announced on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and education website, we present: The school that abolished marking!

From the profession that brought us comprehensive schools in place of grammar schools, the all-ability GCSE exam in place of rigorous GCE O-Levels and political correctness in place of subject knowledge, comes the next great leap forward – the abolition of marking. Step on to the podium of educational progressiveness, the William Law C of E Primary School in Peterborough. Motto: ‘Learning, Living, Loving Together’.

Ofsted rates the school as ‘good’. Clearly, it wishes to become ‘outstanding’ and the magic ingredient to achieving this target appears to be the replacement of marking with fortnightly pupil-teacher chitchats, described as ‘conferencing’, that are scheduled to last fifteen minutes.

This is a great bonus, the BBC explains, for tired teachers at the end of term. Of course it is! Intelligent, diagnostic marking, though, has traditionally been regarded as an intrinsic part of good teaching. This is certainly the case in the top-performing Asia-Pacific education systems and at the best schools here, too. It can, however, be burdensome and time-consuming for teachers, albeit that ‘R and R’ comes with the long hols.

What is going on in Peterborough is innovative and plenty of teachers will tell us how much better it is than marking. But schools should exist to serve the needs and best interests of children, not of teachers or ‘service providers’. Is waiting two weeks for a bit of feedback going to help children learn better? If so, it makes schoolteachers across the centuries and around the world look rather inept.

How extraordinary is it that a school should consider marking or verbal feedback as ‘either/or’ alternatives? In order to progress, children need evaluation and advice as soon as possible after completing a piece of work. Waiting fourteen days for formal feedback is simply absurd. The fact that the non-marking approach is now on the educational agenda bodes ill for the future of children who are on the receiving end.

According to its latest Ofsted report (2017), the William Law School did not meet national standards on phonics tests for its Year 1 pupils. In addition, at Key Stage 2 (7-11 year olds), progress in reading and writing declined. Ofsted added that ‘the most able pupils still struggle with writing about their understanding of texts and still require additional, more specific support.’ They are judged as not achieving well in reading and writing.

Ofsted makes clear, nevertheless, that William Law School has much of which it can feel proud. Like many schools, sadly, it has been too easily seduced by a fake but fashionable educational notion. This notion has obvious appeal to teachers but it does not serve well the interests of children.

In its conclusions the inspectorate noted: ‘Middle leaders are active in suggesting appropriate strategies to improve pupils’ achievements, but not in monitoring and evaluating their impact.’ It is time that they did so! This ‘no-marking’ virus is likely, soon, to infect other schools across the land. It has great appeal for teachers.

Whilst politicians obsess about Brexit they would do well to reflect that, ultimately, our nation’s future will be determined more by our education system than by political deals on Europe. It is time for the education secretaries across the UK to inject some anti-virus software into our schools to combat this latest threat to Brexit Britain.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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