See that teacher? The one with ashen skin, ink smudges on her hands (insert school policy colour of preference) that can barely suppress a yawn? You know, the one with bloodshot eyes and a mug of coffee as large as her face. Yeah her. She teaches English. Be kind to her.
We all know that English teachers get a raw deal when it comes to marking; the problem is that we’re getting a rawER deal now as we juggle the demands of the new English and English Literature GCSEs. The chances are your students have just sat or will be sitting both the English Language papers and both the English Literature papers for their PPE/Mock exams. That’s 7.5 hours worth of work produced by each of your students. Assuming you have just the one exam class of about 30 students, that’s 225 hours worth of student work to plough through. Pity the teacher who has several exam classes…
I would argue that it takes the average English teacher 15 minutes to mark a whole paper. By my calculation that’s 1 hour of marking per student and therefore a full English and English Literature mock results in 30 hours of marking for every exam class. If you’re a new or inexperienced teacher then it’s going to take longer and if you’ve got two exam classes sitting both papers you’ll be spending the equivalent of 7 and a half working days marking. What’s laughable is that you’ve also got to crack on with your day job.
If you’re a senior leader reading this, go and speak to your English department and see how they’re coping. My guess is that they’re burning themselves out. If you want to keep your English teachers (and my guess is that you do) this can’t be allowed to continue.
So, given the rather bleak context I’ve just relayed, what am I doing as a Head of English to manage this marking behemoth and protect my team from burnout? Well, a couple of things…
1. We’re paying other people to mark the English Language papers
For those long entrenched in marking their own papers, this may seem like an anathema. How will I know what we need to work on? Will the feedback be as good? I get that it’s hard to let go but we need to relinquish some of our control for the sake of our sanity. Yes I won’t have marked the papers myself but it’s not like I’ve entrusted the marking to somebody I met in the street (though I’ll admit that there’s been times in my teaching career, in the fug of marking, that this has been a tempting prospect). Our Language papers are being marked by examiners who have been trained by the exam board and therefore I have confidence that the marking will be robust (and will have none of the teacher bias we might sometimes be guilty of).
Our examiners will produce reports on areas of strength and weakness; I’ll therefore know what we need to work on – with probably a better overview of the whole cohort than if we’d all marked our own. Unlike in the Summer, we’ll also be getting our papers back; where there’s surprising results, I’ll be able to look at an individual student’s script to see what happened. When we get our papers back we’ll be spending time in class to go through them and working out how we close the gaps. I’ll also be able to have 1-2-1s to give personalised feedback. I’m struggling to see the drawbacks…
The other benefit of paying somebody else to mark the English Language mock papers is that it’s providing us with an outsider’s perspective on what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. It will either validate or challenge our own marking and, with a brand new paper, I think that’s invaluable; it’s easy to become blinkered in your own departmental echo chamber.
I won’t lie. It’s not cheap paying to have 360 scripts marked externally (approximately 180 students in a year group and two papers each) but I think it’s worth the investment. Not only are we getting robust marking but it’s also a huge weight of marking off the shoulders of my team. All being well, I’ll be ring-fencing some of next year’s budget to do the same and I think it’s something that other English departments need to explore given the demands I’ve outlined and which, no doubt, your English teachers will be experiencing. I also know that I’m lucky enough to have Senior Leaders who listened and were supportive of our decision.
2. We became ‘Question Experts’ for the Literature papers
Instead of juggling the demands of 6 different questions across two papers, we decided that it would be better to become Question Experts. As we have some members of staff exam marking in the Summer, it made sense to match them up to a question on their paper and then shared out the rest. We have six team members and the two not currently teaching year 11 took on the two Unseen Poetry questions.
There are several benefits to this approach:
- Human judgement is essentially comparative (read Daisy Christodoulou’s post: Marking essays and poisoning dogs). By increasing the marking context from a class of essays to a cohort of essays the hope is that the marking will be more accurate (or as accurate as it can be when using assessment criteria).
- It’s easier, and quicker, to mark a cohort of essays responding to one question than marking a class set of 6 different questions and having to switch to marking a new question at the point where you might be hitting your stride.
- The marking is consistent across a question – it’s therefore easier to analyse the cohort’s responses to that question and look for trends.
- Reducing teacher bias. Whether we like it or not it’s hard to ignore how we feel about a student and this can impact the number of marks we award. Consciously or unconsciously we potentially over or under mark our own students’ work.
The argument for marking your own essays is often based on the personalised feedback students receive from their own teacher (which we probably rightfully assume they value). But, given that mocks are a summative assessment the feedback would likely not be extensive. This is especially true for those teachers with a couple of exam classes – how much personalised feedback could we reasonably expect from them when they’re already facing 7.5 working days of marking?
So we’ve sacrificed personalised feedback from students’ own class teacher on the altar of teacher wellbeing but I think we’ve gained, rather than lost, quality feedback. Each teacher has produced a report for their question with trends and high quality feedback – it’s an incredible resource that we’ll be using in the feedback lessons with year 11. As an example, here’s my examiner’s report on the poetry anthology question (nobody else wanted to mark this question…):
In the feedback lessons with my class, I’ll be expecting students to re-read their Literature essays and highlight which of the ‘common errors’ apply to them before writing their own WWW/EBI feedback. They’ll need to actively engage with the feedback which can only be a good thing. I’ll be walking around and talking to students about their essays and having 1-2-1s where needed. Another boon of this approach is that those students who missed a mock paper, or didn’t answer a question, still have the benefit of high quality feedback despite not having a response.
This is the first year we’ve trialled this approach and, from personal experience, I’m a convert. I marked all of my scripts in a day (representing the single most productive day of marking of my teaching career) and therefore didn’t have the mock cloud of woe following me round for a couple of weeks. My team have also been unanimously positive about the experience. If nothing else I know this approach is a win for teacher wellbeing – we need to look after our teachers if we want to look after our students – but I also happen to think that the other benefits (accuracy, consistency, quality feedback, reduced teacher bias) make this a great way to manage the mock marking load.
How is your school approaching the marking of English mock papers? How are you coping? I’d be interested to know how other schools are managing things.
** If you’re interested in our fantastic examiner, get in touch with Sarah Mullen (@English_Consult).