Leading the Change: From Red Pen to No Pen

There are loads of blogs out there about why schools should ditch written marking in favour of different methods of feedback. In the last couple of years, I have led my school’s journey from red pen to no pen marking and this blog is about just that – leading a move away from written marking in a big school full of leaders and teachers who had been feeding back to students that way for a very long time; I do not go into detail about exactly what we now do instead – there is enough out there already about that.

Spearheading a change in a practice that, let’s face it, is the bit most teachers really hate about their job is always going to be popular but ensuring it is replaced with something effective that teachers can be held accountable for is really important – and not easy. I hope this is useful to anyone who might be ringing in the new year with starting their school’s own journey away from written marking.

 

  1. Be clear with leaders about why – and don’t make it a whinge about workload
    People always assume my reason for starting a discussion with our senior leadership team about changing the way teachers delivered feedback to students at my school two years ago was to reduce teacher workload. It wasn’t. I wanted to put an end to written comments because I did not think they were the best way to deliver feedback to students or to encourage them to act on that feedback. Reduced workload has always been a bonus by- product for me. Would we ever suggest that our students shouldn’t be required to do something because it is too hard or takes too much time? Of course we wouldn’t, so don’t suggest your school’s leadership should change their approach to feedback because doing it is too much work. No decent leader who genuinely believes something is having a positive impact on students’ success will agree it should stop because teachers don’t want to do it. In the early days of talking about it with our SLT, I was careful to avoid the ‘w’-word and instead talked about how we could improve feedback by looking at it another way and how teachers’ time could be used more effectively if they weren’t writing comments on students’ books.2…… But make sure leaders understand the reality of a written-marking policy
    Do leaders at your school really know what the ‘normal’ written comments once-every two/three weeks policy means for teachers? How long has it been since they were teaching full timetables? How many of them have a PE/maths/drama background rather than an English or humanities one? When an ethics teacher at my school told me that in order to keep up with our policy his 16 classes meant he had to write 960 comments every three weeks, which meant 320 every week and therefore 64 a day – in other words he should be marking two sets of books a day just to keep his head above water and that a parents’ evening or twilight CPD session would throw him into weekend-marking misery – I knew something had to change. Opening leaders’ eyes to the reality of the current policy without complaining about it as such might be the jolt you need too.
  2. Allay leaders’ fears – arm yourself with evidence
    Leaders who have spent their entire (often very long) careers believing that marking and feedback are the same thing and that red pen scrawled all over students’ books is the only way of doing either will be nervous about putting an end to it. They will fret about how other types of feedback can be ‘evidenced’ and worry about Ofsted. Many schools that do not use written feedback have got through Ofsted inspections with no problems, and high profile ‘no marking’ free schools such as Dixons Trinity and Michaela have achieved ‘Outstanding’ in the last year, so be armed with examples such as this. Leaders may also have concerns about how a change in policy around marking may affect students’ outcomes and there needs to be clarity that what is being suggested is not about giving students’ less feedback, but just changing the way it is delivered. Again, evidence of schools or teachers who have abandoned strict written marking policies whilst achieving excellent outcomes will help.

4.Trial it with a working party
Once the leadership team at my school were at least interested in thinking about an alternative to written marking, I set up a working party to try out my ideas of how feedback could happen instead. I wanted everyone to do ‘whole class’ feedback – whereby teachers go through a class set of books once every couple of weeks and keep notes using a standard proforma on positives, what needed to be worked on and teacher and student ‘next steps’ based on these observations. The trial was brilliant because it allowed senior leaders who were nervous about it to see it in action and understand that it wasn’t about simply ‘stopping marking’. The trial also meant that I learnt that my idea of what feedback should look like if we weren’t writing comments didn’t work for every department, leading to what we did next……

  1. Let departments write their own policies
    The trial showed me that expecting teachers of all different subjects to deliver feedback in the same way would not really work. More importantly, our senior team felt that this huge policy change would only work if teachers did not feel it was being imposed on them. I was quite open about the fact that I felt whole-class feedback was the way forward and I knew that most departments would go for a policy based on it, but I also knew that getting whole-class feedback right involved more work than a teacher being freed from a written marking policy might foresee, and didn’t want to replace one list of things teachers needed to do when feeding back with another, so felt it was best for departments to get to their list themselves! I was also aware that heads of department might feel nervous about moving away from written marking. We encouraged departments to spend a couple of months talking over ideas and trying things out before putting together a policy that they would trial for a term.
  2. Don’t diss the old way
    Many, many teachers will have spent years doing written marking and many will pride themselves on the care and attention they have paid to it. Many leaders will have expended untold time on energy on holding people to account over written marking policies. Whatever you have read on twitter, don’t bang on about how stupid/pointless/what a waste of everyone’s time written marking is. Don’t sell the change based on how useless the old way was, regardless of what you might think. In the privacy of senior team meetings, I sometimes raged about the years of my life I had wasted on writing meaningless comments students spent 2.5 seconds reading and 1.5 seconds forgetting about, but in front of staff I just talked about a new way of marking that could allow us to continue to deliver the high-quality feedback we always had whilst making it more timely and helping us to use it to be more responsive in our teaching.
  3. Spend lots of time with heads of department
    Over the next few months I talked to heads of department constantly about how they were getting on with their trials and policies. I walked around lessons a lot and then just had corridor chats with them about what I had seen and any little changes they might want to consider or things perhaps to think about. The regular talking enabled me to learn that generally, they were really nervous about being given autonomy around feedback, which I hadn’t expected, and I found that many were leaning towards ‘new’ policies that were not that different from the old ones! There seemed to be a lot of form-filling and spreadsheet entry and requirements for students to write stuff in their books fairly frequently to show that they had received and were acting on feedback. Many still wanted written comments to be made on exams or end of topic tests. When I dug down into the reasons for this, they all talked about ‘evidence’ and it became clear that for some, they were more concerned about devising systems that meant they could still check their policies were being followed and would be easily demonstrable to an observer than they were about actually working on developing the best way for teachers to give and students to receive feedback. This wasn’t their fault; it was a regime they were used to and they needed reassurance that they really did have the freedom to move away from it. I remember one head of department talking me through her complex system of form-filling and sheets for students to write on and teachers to file, and asking her to, just for a moment, imagine that no-one was ever going to set foot in her classroom or look in her piles of workbooks other than her and her students and tell me how she would feed back to students were that the case. She told me and when I said “so do that” she finally got it; this was not about SLT or Ofsted or about anything other than doing what would work for her and her students in her classroom. For a lot of heads of department, it took them a while to really feel comfortable with this.
  4. Review policies with heads of department

After department policies had been in place for a term or so, I did a work scrutiny with the heads of department. I was really clear that it was not being done to them, but as a way of supporting them, and we sat down and looked at 20 student workbooks alongside anything else (most teachers were using folders to record observations and deliver whole class feedback) they wanted to bring along. We talked openly about what their policies looked like in action and interestingly, they were much more critical of what they saw than I was! Together, we worked out a few little tweaks and changes to their policies.

  1. Review how feedback is going and work out next steps
    A term or so later, myself and the Principal focused our learning walks on feedback. We had no pre-conceived idea of what our next steps should be and, indeed, whether any were necessary. What we found was that most departments were doing whole-class feedback and that most teachers were delivering it regularly, but there was a bit of a gap between teachers who were doing it very effectively and those who were doing it in a way that was less effective. We identified that the most effective method involved teachers delivering feedback, then delivering a teaching episode based on that feedback (which would usually be heavily reliant on modelling), then giving students the opportunity to act on it. In English, a clear example might be:
    Feedback: Most of you are using really boring clichéd similes
    Teaching episode: Let’s look at Jenny and Bob’s excellent similes. Look at these three boring similes on the board and watch how I make them more interesting
    Act: Now find the similes in your work and change them to make them more interesting.
    We delivered CPD to all staff based on this principle and then had a short meeting with heads of department in which we looked at a few issues that were about policies rather than teacher delivery of feedback. The major one was that most policies were still frequency-based but schemes of learning did not necessarily enable this, so, to use another English-based example, a policy saying that students should receive feedback on written work every two weeks based on extended writing alongside a scheme of learning that had students reading a novel for four weeks and only answering comprehension-based questions was setting teachers up to fail! We talked to head of department about this and worked with them on how they could look at their schemes of learning and curriculum plans and ensure their feedback policies serviced them.
  2. Keep the conversation going
    This is about where we are now, really! The important thing is that we keep reviewing policies and their implementation and what feedback looks like in the classroom, as well as obviously how effective it is in terms of student outcomes. Leading a big change like this has not been easy and has taken some courage; no matter to what extent I have the rest of the leadership team on board and how much of the decision making I have devolved to middle leaders, ultimately my name is still on the tin for changing something that was easy to monitor and hold people to account for to something that is not. Since the change, we have maintained our excellent GCSE results and Ofsted have come and gone; I can’t reveal the outcome yet but the lack of written marking did not prevent a very pleasing judgement being made.

 

If you are thinking about leading a change in the way feedback is delivered in your school, I would plan out a two-year (and beyond!) journey. It is easy to please staff by ditching written marking but hard to ensure that what replaces it is effective. Plan, trial, review, review, review!

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