Marking: Full Books and Empty Heads

Book burningThere was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm. Much of this work was of a kind that the other animals were too ignorant to understand. For example, Squealer told them that the pigs had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called ‘files’, ‘reports’, ‘minutes’, and ‘memoranda’. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered, they were burnt in the furnace. (George Orwell, Animal Farm).

Marking exercise books has become the bane of many teachers’ lives. A colleague saw me in the staff room with a pile of books recently, and commiserated. I replied that I do not find the pile depressing, because of the way that I mark.

I check that everything has been done. If it has been done poorly, it must be redone. If it has been done decently, it gets a tick. If it has been done well, it earns one or more merits. I also highlight spelling and punctuation mistakes. So this is what I actually write, beyond the ticks:

  • ‘Redo’;
  • ‘1M’, ‘2M’ etc;
  • ‘P’ (for punctuation), and the mistake corrected;
  • ‘Ask’ for anything more complex (such as style / vocabulary);
  • Spelling corrections, for pupils to write out five times.

That’s it. When pupils get the books back, I allow some class time for writing out mistakes or redoing work, but for those who have a lot of this to do, because they have been careless, it becomes extra homework to complete the corrections. Pupils only use the left hand page in their exercise books, so the right hand page is always free for them to write their corrections.

The only time I write longer comments is on more extended pieces of work, which are done in class. They are done in class so that I can provide guidance beforehand and control the conditions under which they are done. In this way, I know that I am actually commenting on the pupil’s work, and I can be reasonably sure it will be on task and of sufficient length and quality to merit more detailed marking. Pupils do these extended pieces four times a term.

Just as with the exercise books, when the pieces are returned, class time is devoted to acting on advice. With a piece of extended writing, for example, I do a simple error count and write it next to the grade. If there is a high error count (twenty or more) then the whole piece must be written out again with all mistakes corrected. If the error count is lower, pupils rewrite a paragraph, focusing on improving a specific aspect of their writing, such as vocabulary or sentence variety.

I’m not offering this as a perfect system, but it is a sane and sustainable one. I teach a full timetable. I do take marking on the train with me, but I do not spend evenings and weekends doing it. I have family duties to occupy me then, with five young children at home, and I could not do a job which left me no time with my little ones. I’m not surprised when I hear of teachers leaving the profession because of the unreasonable marking demands placed upon them. If I were in their situation, I would have to find another school, or leave teaching completely.

Aside from issues of sustainability, there are many points to be made about the effectiveness of spilling red, purple or pink ink all over pupils’ work.

There is no proof that elaborate marking of exercise books leads to improved learning. It drains teachers and prevents them from doing things which would definitely improve their effectiveness, such as long term planning and resource creation.

Elaborate marking moves the focus away from what is in the pupils’ heads (the knowledge they have mastered) to what is written on pieces of paper. The two are not equivalent. What we have in books is a performance, not learning. And if it is homework, it is likely that it is not even the pupil’s own performance.

Why are we wasting so much time writing elaborate comments on these performances? Instead, we should be focusing on fine tuning teaching methods that build mastery. Likewise, school leaders should be building mastery in their staff, not picking over marking performances produced more for the sake of management than for the sake of education.

Like Squealer’s bits of paper, those exercise books will end up being disposed of. But what our pupils store in long term memory will stay with them.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Embracing Risk in a Climate of Fear and Surveillance

Sir Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590), one of the founders of modern state surveillance.

In the name of safety, we are expected to accept ever greater impingements upon our privacy and our liberty. We are expected to pay for an ever expanding and increasingly expensive security apparatus. Ever since the Tudors centralised power and nationalised belief, the state has been telling us what’s good for us, and ‘taking care’ of those who supposedly threaten the national interest.

Public torture and execution may have gone, but the modern equivalents are actually more sinister, because they are more insidious. The state has been growing inexorably and swallowing an ever greater share of national wealth. People accept this when they are told it is for their safety. After all, we wouldn’t want to take risks, would we?

The same attitude prevails in our treatment of the young. They used to ramble freely in the streets and fields. Now they are contained in reservations with high fences (schools and playgrounds) or plugged into machines that keep them indoors.

Just as the population at large is subjected to ever increasing surveillance, the young are constantly observed and measured. Even before birth, a child’s privacy is invaded, to prepare them for a lifetime of being under the watchful care of the state. At this stage, many who deviate significantly from the norm are eliminated entirely. There could be few clearer examples than this of how a risk-averse culture embraces death rather than life.

Soon after birth, the health visitors arrive with graphs of size and weight based on the national average, and if the child is not conforming to this average, the anxious agents of the state put mothers under pressure to supplement natural food with artificial. Because we wouldn’t want to take any risks, right?

The stifling school data culture is a symptom of our national effort to eliminate risk. Everyone must be measured and analysed, and any deviation from the norm must be addressed, because deviance is a threat to a culture based on conformity.

But a life without risk is a life without freedom. Freedom always entails real choices, and therefore the possibility of bad ones, or dangerous ones. The surveillance of the population, and the particularly close scrutiny of the young, is a symptom of the deathly bureaucratic mindset, in which human freedom must be eliminated for the sake of control.

We have to ask ourselves whether freedom or safety is more important. Complete control, complete safety can never be achieved in any case. And if we are destroying freedom in an attempt to eliminate risk, we are in fact destroying humanity in order to save it.

We see this scenario played out in schools across the land, where managers destroy teachers in the name of bureaucratic control. If schools cannot embrace risk, they must reject humanity. They must reject the very thing they are supposed to be serving.

Can Ofsted Be Reformed?


Even great statesmen struggle to reform institutions with ingrained tendencies.

During the debate over abolishing Ofsted at Michaela on 21st November, an audience member compared the inspectorate to the Soviet State Planning Committee. He said that Gorbachev’s efforts to reform it had led to its collapse. It could not be reformed. It had to be destroyed, because it was incapable of changing fundamentally.

There has been a schools inspectorate ever since there has been large scale state education, but there has not always been Ofsted. The great Victorian education reformer Matthew Arnold was an inspector, for example. So inspection and Ofsted are not synonymous. The question we have to ask is whether Ofsted is capable of being reformed so radically that it actually does more good than harm.

We are talking about an organisation that has, with almost complete impunity, ruined the careers of many good teachers. There are countless stories of how inspectors have branded knowledgeable teachers who get good results as inadequate, on the basis of misguided dogmas. Katie Ashford shared some of these nightmare tales during her speech in favour of abolition.

Because of the incalculable harm done by Stalinist inspectors, Ofsted is viewed with suspicion and fear by most in the teaching profession. Although there have been genuine reforms, most notably in the abandoning of lesson grading, and although Sir Michael Wilshaw talks sense, is it really possible that the whole institution has had a change of heart?

It seems unlikely. Sir Michael is not St Michael. He presides not over an army of angels but a large number of fallible human beings. Many of these human beings have blood on their hands. A lot of it. They are responsible for destroying careers and closing schools based on arbitrary and misinformed judgements. And despite the sanity being spoken by those at the top, we haven’t seen much public penitence from the people who got their hands dirty carrying out the purges. It won’t be Sir Michael who visits your school. And it might be one of them.

Aristotle points out in his Ethics that virtues develop over time by the repeated performance of good actions: ‘by doing just actions we become just’. In other words, virtues are habitual. But so are vices. What is decisive is not knowledge, but habit. So whatever Sir Michael says, we have to face the fact that many inspectors have very bad habits, which would take a long time and a lot of willpower to break. Even if they have been told not to judge lessons, they are in the habit of doing so, based on misguided criteria. How could we know how much their judgement of a school would be swayed by the false judgements they are in the habit of making? Of course, they wouldn’t officially admit to it, but we’re all very good at making judgements based on flimsy evidence and then rationalising them afterwards.

Should people with habits like these really be trusted with making or breaking the careers of teachers, and deciding on the very existence of schools? Or do we need to start again from scratch if we are going to build an inspectorate that does not have Stalinist tendencies?

(Image from Wikimedia).

Uncompromising Discipline and Parental Choice

All this the world well knows; yet none know well

To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell. (Shakespeare, Sonnet 129)

Manchester Library

Public libraries can be places of refuge, provided they insist on silence.

Our current moral climate is based on the idea of absolute individual autonomy. Each person must be allowed to make their own personal choice, and if any higher authority interferes with this personal choice, they are to be branded as tyrannical. Anyone who insists upon an absolute moral standard must be dismissed as a fanatic.

In this climate, schools have to be counter-cultural, because absolute individual autonomy leads to chaos. Increasingly, even those who continue to accept moral relativism in their own conduct are insisting on absolute standards in their classrooms.

When a school insists on absolute standards, on rules to which there can be no exceptions, then it can grate against the attitudes of parents. They may wish to have exceptions made for their children. It’s very easy to believe that the rules should be bent for one’s own child, that they must receive special treatment because of their unique individual personality or circumstances.

When parents ask for rules to be bent to accommodate their child, they don’t put it that way, of course. They are likely to represent the school as tyrannical and inflexible. It is very easy for them to have these arguments accepted, given the moral climate I described above. Nothing is easier than representing a school leader who refuses to compromise as a tyrannical bully, given the general agreement in our society that people should be able to live just as they please, unconcerned by any fixed moral standards.

It takes great courage for a school to stand up to parents like this. They have to be prepared to suffer misrepresentation and slander of the grossest kind, given that there is no dogma so fixed in our society as the dogma of relativism (and so few are able to recognise the deep irony of this dogmatism).

But stand up they must. If a few pushy parents can force a headteacher to compromise, then discipline in the school is at the top of a very slippery downward slope. The parents must be informed that the rules are fixed, that their child must abide by them, and that if they do not like this, they are welcome to move their child to another school. If they prefer slack discipline, then there are plenty of places where they will be able to find it.

There is no real parental choice if parents are permitted to bully schools into compromise, because there will be no schools with firm discipline if this is the case. Consider the analogy of libraries. Public libraries are (or they used to be – here is another place where slackness has often destroyed choice) places of silent study. If people are permitted to chatter in libraries, there is no longer a place where ordinary people can go to read and study silently. The firmness of the rules is what creates that choice for the public. Compromising the rules destroys the special character of libraries as places of silence and contemplation, and impoverishes the public service which they provide.

The lines from Shakespeare in my epigraph refer to the unbridled exercise of individual autonomy in sexual relations. While it might seem fun, even ‘heavenly’, in the short term, we all know the destruction to marriages and families, and the damage to children, which self-indulgent promiscuity causes. Self-indulgent, undisciplined attitudes towards the raising of children might also seem fun, but they too cause untold harm, and the harm falls most on the most vulnerable members of our society.

In an atmosphere of slackness and self-indulgence, we need courageous school leaders who buck the trend, and refuse to compromise. Then parents will really have a choice. They really will be able to choose a civilised, ordered environment for their child’s education.

(Image from Wikimedia).

Target Setting and ‘Full Potential’

Archery“Don’t worry, Mrs Green, we’ll help him reach his full potential.”

Reassuring words like these are often spoken to anxious parents. All involved have good intentions, no doubt. Parents want to know that their child is being supported. Teachers are convinced that what they do will provide the means for young Johnny to reach his ‘full potential’.

But how on earth do we know what his ‘full potential’ is? Hidden not far beneath the surface of these words is a monstrous arrogance, which usually remains unexamined.

Ideas about the ‘full potential’ of pupils are typically based on a combination of test data and teacher assessment. The data from cognitive assessment tests is thus abused, as it was never intended to make such predictions. The probable grades it spits out are based on statistics from a large, nationwide group of pupils. They can never be validly used to predict individual grades, or even the grades of a school, because the school, and the individual even more, are not a representative sample.

As for teacher assessment, that is always biased. It is particularly biased when teachers have already made false assumptions based on the supposed predictions produced by cognitive test data.

So when we are talking about ‘full potential’, we are probably talking about invalid statistical ‘predictions’ combined with confirmation bias.

What can classroom teachers do to counter this? Unfortunately, the culture of target setting has become deeply ingrained in British education in recent years. The spurious information which it generates is used to make all kinds of management and political decisions. Most individual teachers will have little choice about whether they get involved in these practices.

But what teachers can do is ignore the spurious targets in their day to day classroom practice. They can try their best not to limit their expectations of any pupil, whatever the data might say. They can aim to teach a challenging, knowledge rich curriculum to all pupils by teaching the whole class, leading from the front and using the same quality materials (preferably well designed textbooks) with everyone. They can refuse to put pupils into pigeonholes and limit their chances with dumbed down worksheets because ‘that’s all they can cope with.’

In doing this, teachers will not ‘close the gap’, because real differences of ability do exist. But they will raise the achievement of everyone in the class. The bell curve will stay, but we can move it to the right.

And next time Johnny’s teachers get anxious questions from parents, they can say that they are teaching him to their full potential. What he is actually learning, of course, is impossible to judge. We can hope for the best, but we must have the humility to admit that there are many things we can never know. One of those things is exactly what Johnny’s ‘full potential’ is.

Don’t Get Down with the Kids


Aren’t they cute?

Children are naturally very good at some things. For example, they are exceptionally good at playing. They need very little help with this, and in fact, they don’t even need toys. Some sticks and mud are more than enough once they get going. Very young ones need some encouragement and example, but this is best provided not by adults but by older children. Adults just aren’t so good at playing.

Adults are, however, good at being still and focusing on a task. They are good at finishing one thing before moving on to something else. They are good at listening politely and not interrupting. They have a much wider knowledge and vocabulary. Adults have knowledge and skills which children need to learn if they are to mature successfully.

And yet, bizarrely, there are many adults who try their best to behave like children when they are interacting with them. They try to join in with their games. They try to reduce their vocabulary. They try to get ‘down with the kids’.

Imagine if we did this with babies. When we were in their presence, we would only use words they already knew. So we wouldn’t speak to them at all. We would try to act like them as much as possible. So we had better not walk, or we might alienate them. Better roll around on the floor and wave our arms around, imitating all that wonderful natural spontaneity. After all, we wouldn’t want to corrupt them with our artificial adult ways.

If we get down, will they ever grow up? We are raising adults, not children.

The lowering of adult dignity and authority even continues into interaction with adolescents, who are nearing adulthood themselves. Adults try to learn about the latest drivel to issue from the popular culture industry. They try to learn teenage slang. In doing so, they are making themselves look ridiculous and encouraging the arrogance of teenagers, who think they know so much more than their uncool elders about what really matters.

The teenagers are wrong. Adults know a lot more than they do. And yet so many adults are shy about passing on their knowledge, or about using vocabulary that will not be instantly accessible to the young. They don’t want to be ‘didactic’; they don’t want to alienate young people with ‘lectures’.

I’ve had to discover many a valuable piece of information in a slow, uncertain and laborious way, because no one explained it to me when I was young. What’s the problem with wanting my own children, or my pupils, to be spared that pain?

(Image from Wikimedia).

How Did Teachers Get the Blame?

In the last few decades, we’ve seen an ever increasing industry of testing, data and management culture throttling ordinary teachers.

Something did go wrong in the seventies. The process of comprehensivisation was hijacked by progressives, and secondary schools in particular became increasingly hellish places to work. It is not therefore surprising that politicians felt that they had to intervene.

But the manner in which the intervention has been, and continues to be, carried out, is ineffective. It too often seems to be based on the assumption that there are lots of lazy or stupid teachers out there who either cannot or will not listen to reason. There cannot be large scale improvement while the culture of surveillance and suspicion from above, and fear and distrust from below, continues. Teachers have to be won around to more effective methods, not by clubbing them over the head, but by providing training, resources and support that show them, in a concrete way, how things can be done better.

There must be a few really poor teachers out there. We’ve all heard stories about gross negligence. But really, it is the job of headteachers to deal with serious cases like this. Putting everyone under surveillance when just a few need sorting out is cowardly. Management should have the guts to deal with individuals when they fail in their professional duties.

As for everyone else, they are working hard, but often in an ineffective way, because they have swallowed progressive ideas about discovery learning, or the importance of skills and the insignificance of facts. They need to hear about a better way. They need to hear the good news: teachers should teach; pupils should work hard and not expect to be entertained.

This really is good news. Traditional methods are simpler and more effective. Teachers can rediscover the joy of teaching: simply passing on important knowledge, and expecting their pupils to put the effort into learning it. Whole class chanting of the dates of kings and queens or a great speech from Shakespeare fills everyone’s mind with useful and beautiful things.

Most of all, rediscovering traditional methods means that we can rediscover the joy of schooling. One of the most poisonous ideas promoted in recent decades is that there is something oppressive about school itself. It certainly can feel oppressive when a million different differentiation strategies, or elaborate marking and detailed planning, or hoop jumping performances for observers, are required.

So throw off the shackles, get some decent materials and just focus on filling the minds of the young with that which is good, true and beautiful.