Some days ago, I found myself in the unexpected position of contemplating a new job. An appealing post came up in a local school – a Free School, no less – and despite having more or less concluded that I will probably see my career out at my present school, I began wondering whether a change might not be such a bad thing.
The last half-term was fraught. Not so much with the pupils as other things, notably the issue of marking. I’m going to bend my usual purdah on matters specific here, because I suspect the issue is actually more general. In my faculty, there are long-standing guidelines about the frequency of marking, which are demanding – some would say unsustainable – as they are. We have now been told that we must also expect children to respond to our marking with ten minutes’ worth of green pen every time books are returned – and then we must go back through their books and acknowledge or respond to their replies. This is in effect double or even triple marking. There are also burdensome codes that must be used for every conceivable error.
In addition, older pupils must have timed assessments at least once a fortnight, to be returned within a week and re-done and re-marked if they do not meet their target grades. No matter if the weaker pupils end up in a mess with several on the go simultaneously. I should make it clear that, at present, this is not a whole-school issue, but the doing of an over-zealous middle manager.
I calculated that this would involve me in more than three hours’ marking every day of the week in order to meet the demands, and other colleagues fare even worse. That is without the additional work of planning and other tasks that the difficulties of our timetable impose. I also brought home several classes’ worth of assessments to mark over half-term, and a bag-load of G.C.S.E coursework and could easily have spent the whole week working.
There were protests, but they were brushed aside. I contemplated mentioning the impact on family life, but was advised this would simply be ignored. Where this will lead after the holiday, who knows.
Britain’s “patchy education system” is mentioned in this month’s Prospect as one of the country’s Achilles’ heels. Who working in education would not want the system to be as good as it can be? I doubt there is anyone who disagrees that marking is important.
But this is not the way to do it. I simply cannot function at the intensity now being demanded; nobody can. On a practical level, there are insufficient hours in the day, especially as marking time at school is almost non-existent. The only option is to mark in lessons, which is not a good use of teacher-time. Anyway, my brain cannot cope with such endless drudgery; I find that quality drops, and I end up howling for a break. It is simply not possible to maintain quality in such quantities with such intensity. Stultification sets in – and yet the system will not budge.
Teachers have been left with the prospect of eating yet further into their personal lives, cutting the quality in order to cope with quantity, or failing to meet the deadlines while trying to maintain quality. Either way, the stress of being set up to fail like this is unacceptable.
I have yet to see any conclusive evidence that shows that marking is the panacea we have all been looking for. There are plenty of countries with excellent education systems that do not take this approach; there are plenty of well-educated British who did not experience this regime either. Some of the most successful systems are so laid-back that you’d hardly recognise them as such; they tend to have people who actually enjoy working in education. Experience suggests that while pupils can be trained to respond to such systems, they do not do so voluntarily. Much of the response is mechanical and needs regular prompting, all the more so amongst those who might most need the support – and a necessary activity just becomes a millstone.
What we have here is just another example of the grinding, bureaucratic response that is the only way the British education system knows: if you need more horsepower, just flog the teachers again. No matter that it seems to have minimal impact on the effort or attainment of the pupils, and may even be counter-productive. This country’s system knows no other way – but this is not the path to ‘world-class’ excellence. In fact, it is the response of a system that has not the slightest inkling what that phrase might mean in educational or intellectual terms.
I am resolute that this is where the ‘line in the sand’ lies; many colleagues concur. We have been left with no other option but to ignore the stipulation and deal with what consequences may emerge. In fact, it is becoming ever clearer that this rapacious system knows no limits at all. The more we deliver, the more it demands. So, as it seems incapable of doing so, we will set the limits ourselves – at a point which delivers a more civilised and reasonable work-life balance. I have cut my evening watershed from 10pm to 9pm and anything that does not get done by then will not be. But it is not an entirely happy feeling; despite the welcome rest, the anxiety lurks even though finishing work at 9pm each day is hardly slacking.
And so I found myself looking at the job description for a free school. I wondered whether ‘free’ might mean free from the kind of madness described above. But then I read of the school’s rigorous policy of coloured-pen marking, of multiple-marking of pupils’ work, of peer assessment, learning walks, work scrutiny and the rest. What’s more, the foundation that runs it stipulates the exam board that must be used. Teachers are required to work in teams with partner schools to assure quality and develop approved teaching strategies.
And I wondered which conceivable definition of ‘free’ this might be.