Last reviewed 17 January 2014

Marking has traditionally been the bane of teachers’ lives. However, in the current climate, school leaders should not underestimate the importance of marking and feedback for school improvement. Suzanne O’Connell reports.


If you take a selection of schools’ recent Ofsted reports and glance at what they need to do to improve further, it is likely that “marking and feedback” features somewhere.

The following are sample comments taken from a selection of schools, each with a “good” overall judgment. Each school has been told they can improve, from good to outstanding, in their teaching and learning.

Primary school: Ensuring that pupils know how to improve their learning in mathematics by establishing a clear teacher–pupil dialogue when marking pupils’ work.

Junior school: Ensuring pupils always have opportunities to respond to teachers’ helpful marking of work.

All-through school: Ensuring that the quality of all written feedback given to students matches that of the best.

Secondary school: Providing more English homework for students and ensuring it is effectively marked so they know how well they are doing.

If your school does not have an effective marking policy in place, it is likely that it will be flagged up as an issue.

Feedback is crucial

The importance of marking, at least partially, originated from the findings of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit by the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation. This school improvement bible identified “feedback” as the top strategy for improving children’s learning, with a grade of “very high impact for low cost” and a potential gain for students of eight months.

According to the Toolkit, feedback “redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome”. It can be verbal, written, or given through tests or information and communication technology, and can be about:

  • the learning activity itself

  • the process of activity

  • the student’s management of his or her learning or self-regulation.

The Toolkit suggests that effective feedback:

  • is specific, accurate and clear, eg “it was good because you…”

  • compares what a learner is doing right now with what he or she has done before, eg “I can see you were focused on improving X as it is much better than last time’s Y…”

  • gets the right balance between support and challenge

  • is used sparingly so that it is meaningful

  • provides specific guidance on how to improve and does not just tell students when they are wrong

  • is supported with effective professional development for teachers

  • should be about complex or challenging tasks or goals

  • can come from peers as well as adults.

The Toolkit does concede that “it is challenging to make feedback work in the classroom”. Challenging or not, Ofsted will expect to see an effective policy in place, and teachers applying it consistently.

A priority for Ofsted

Marking, assessment and feedback are under the “quality of teaching” judgment. During the scrutiny of pupils’ work, inspectors will be looking for how well and frequently marking, assessment and testing are used to help teachers improve pupils’ learning.

In order to achieve an outstanding judgment, there must be evidence that “consistently high-quality marking and constructive feedback from teachers ensures that pupils make rapid gains”.

However, there are some unresolved issues. Detailed marking takes a lot of time. There can be resentment if the school’s marking policy becomes too onerous. Schools must find a balance between effective marking that moves pupils’ learning on, and a system that does not leave teachers feeling swamped.

The Toolkit does indicate that a measured approach to marking is more beneficial for pupils. It advises that it should be “given sparingly so that it is meaningful” and that “too much feedback can stop learners working out what they need to do for themselves”. Therefore, schools should feel reassured that they can provide a policy that covers Ofsted requirements without making teachers’ social life a thing of the past.

Developing your marking policy

It is important to remember that marking is not about noting your students’ efforts and attainment, but about moving their learning on. Teachers will resent a policy that appears to be more about window dressing than genuinely adding value to the time in the classroom.

Beginning by talking to teachers and pupils is always a good foundation for policies. The Sutton Trust materials help demonstrate the importance of classroom practice and can be used to kick-start your discussions.

Look around at what other schools have produced and what is available from your local authority (if applicable). From this starting point, you can begin to craft your own version. Agreeing a pilot period and review date is useful to reassure staff that any glitches can be corrected early. You will need to set aside time for training and possibly money, too (different coloured pens, post-it notes, and printing costs can soon add up over the year). Subject knowledge is crucial. Staff who are not confident in the stages of learning for a subject, will not be able to guide their students in what they should do next.

It is vital that staff understand and use the agreed policy correctly. Providing good examples of what it looks like, in practice, can help and are a good aid to supply staff. Middle managers involved in observations should be checking on the effectiveness of the marking policy and you should make time for individual conversations with teachers who are struggling to find the right balance.

How to make it manageable

Your marking policy must find the right balance for your pupils and staff. It might include the following.

  • The intervals at which a detailed written feedback comment might be given — this might vary across subjects.

  • Clearly understood symbols to avoid having to write out the same comments, eg a call to action, a mistake or where dialogue has taken place orally.

  • The involvement of a variety of people to provide the feedback — teaching assistants and peers might be included.

  • Advice on providing comments, questions or directions that require pupils to respond — either something that will challenge pupils, consolidate their learning or provide support or a model/example.

  • Advice about pauses within the lesson for pupils to read and respond to comments.

  • A system that ensures comments and instructions are followed up, eg written on a marking slip that is transferred to the next piece of work.

  • The need to emphasise the lesson objective.

  • The importance of pupils correcting work themselves — you may need to provide resources in the classroom (such as spell checkers) to help them do this.

  • Guidance for teachers on setting targets, emphasising that pupils need to understand what they need to do to achieve them.

  • A separate section on literacy — literacy must be marked consistently across departments and not just by the English department.

  • A very visual element for younger pupils.

Demands on time are likely to arise. Consider reducing the amount of planning you expect, to compensate for the additional time needed to make marking more effective.

If you have not already reviewed your marking policy and ensured that staff are trained and able to implement it, then it should be a school priority before your next inspection. Time invested now will remove the necessity for remedial action later.