Too little red pencil, too much red tape

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The Independent Online
Every parent has a story about how teachers mark work. Either it's a complaint that a project that took four weeks to produce has taken even longer to mark. Or a puzzled query about why four spelling errors have been left untouched in a history essay. Or a protest that some pieces of work never appear to be marked at all - one 11-year-old had only one piece of history marked in a whole term, though the teacher based his end-of-term grade on it.

Teachers point out that marking is a more complicated business than most parents suppose. Failure to mark errors isn't simply a matter of idleness, but one of educational principle. In the Sixties, thousands signed up to the theory that too much marking demoralised the slowest pupils. Some exponents of that theory still exist. Inspectors of Hackney Downs school in London, which closed two years ago, said that their over-generous marking was deluding pupils about their abilities.

Most teachers no longer subscribe to the demoralisation theory, but the Nineties version of it - intelligent marking - flourishes. No child remembers a correction, the argument goes, if it is simply a red pencil mark through a word. Instead of underlining every wrong spelling or misplaced comma, teachers try to select and explain groups of recurring errors, even if that means that some minor mistakes go uncorrected for months.

They also argue, with justification, that some homework takes weeks to return because their lives are becoming ever busier as the Government piles on initiatives and classes grow steadily larger.

But there is a growing body of evidence that marking is not up to scratch. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools, said on Tuesday that some written work was not being marked rigorously enough, and that schools were not using the information gleaned from marking to raise standards. His annual report says that "marking is good in no more than a third" of secondary schools. Last year, the same report stated that marking was poor in a quarter of schools - "commonly, for example, marks and grades are given without comment or explanation". The report complained that there were inconsistencies in marking between classes and departments even in the same school.

Yet research to be published tomorrow from King's College London will show that marking, or "feedback", to use the jargon, may be more important than almost anything else in raising standards. So the teacher who writes "good" rather than explaining that the piece starts well but needs a more emphatic conclusion and a tighter use of language in places, is doing his or her pupils a much bigger disservice than many people suppose. Equally, if pupils are to improve they and their parents need to know exactly where they stand. Like most Sixties theories, the worry about demoralisation has been so misinterpreted that it has to go. It may make sense to curb the red pencil for a five-year-old's first story, but to give a 15-year-old the same treatment is damaging.

The issue of "intelligent" marking is more complicated. In theory, it looks attractive; but in practice, it may fall apart unless it is systematically applied by a good teacher. Pupils who see basic errors apparently undetected week after week naturally conclude that if the teacher doesn't care, then why should they?

Even if the school's marking policy is working, how many heads have explained to parents and pupils how it operates? And how many make regular checks that marking is being done?

Teachers will rightly complain that good marking takes time. Such is the pressure on the profession at present that many are marking books in the middle of the night: hardly conducive to helpful "feedback". If the Government takes the Chief Inspector's complaints seriously, the amount of time that teachers spend away from class needs to be increased. French teachers spend only about half the time with pupils that their British counterparts do.

But time isn't the only problem. Marking is tricky, as the disputes over national tests results, especially in English, have proved. Schools need to give it much higher priority, and teachers need lessons in how to use it to raise standards.