By Emma White
Don’t kid yourself.
There are no shortcuts to marking. Teachers and home educators alike scratch their heads to find an easier way forward. In schools, many must search their souls in a bid to find a robust way to satisfy the needs of the school data drop and the performance levels aspired to. Like it or not marking is an unavoidable chore of every teacher’s life. There may be a desire to bring in a degree of automation in certain circles and even a hope that the Artificial Intelligence online offerings will understand the idiosyncrasies of every child’s’ work. Something to make it quicker. Yes, we’d all like that; but the application of professional, human evaluation to a student’s work is the only way to recognise problems and promote a chance of improvement. It is a fundamental part of teaching.
Of course, when faced with a pile of 200 plus scripts there is the inevitable groan and an unavoidable tendency to mark according to preconceived perceptions. ‘Johnny’s a bright lad, this will be worthy of a 9’. “Lucy has been trying really hard of late – give her a 6’. This is certainly easier and maybe a natural default setting. But the crushing truth is that generous marking through the academic year and in mocks comes at a price on that fateful Thursday in August. We hear directly from teachers regularly, unsure of their approach in marking, wanting help and guidance. An examiner’s commentary with marks and grades which may have them wincing a little can be a revelation and knowing ‘this is where I am and this is what I need to do about it’ is the next step on the road to make a grade 3 into a grade four; a grade 6 into a grade 7 and so on.
To read a script from a critical perspective with every Assessment Objective planted firmly at the forefront of the mind is a challenge. It takes patience, it takes practice, it takes concentration and it also takes a near impossible ability to remove all unintentional emotional bias – to stand aloft and be judge and jury on kids for whom you feel a flicker of sympathy. Our view at MMP is that anonymity is the key to an objective assessment. Our examiners do not know if the scripts they mark have travelled the globe from a very challenging environment, from a frantically busy UK secondary school, a distant international school or a tutor group. We remove that unintended emotional bias, understandable though it is, but which colours a parent or teacher’s view.
Marking is everything. It is a chance to look objectively at a child’s performance and give feedback that can bring about change.
For me, the harsh reality of accurate marking came at a most awkward time. As a home educator, single handedly ploughing through 11 GCSEs with two boys aged 15 and 12, a first paper was submitted just three months before our official English Language GCSE. ‘Oh he does write well, he’ll be fine, sure to get an A*’. That’s what I thought. Well more fool me. Hopes and dreams quickly collapsed into, ‘Oh Lord, we’ve scraped a B – just.’
I wasn’t in a position to argue with the examiner. I knew my place but I did feel rather foolish and guilty too. So I admitted defeat to a confused child and vowed that in those dying stages we would make the biggest difference, and we did, painstakingly analysing those assessment notes on where we had gone wrong and how we could improve. Confidence was rebuilt and on that celebrated day in August we got an A*.
I now insist that only examiners mark my childrens’ papers and beyond that they need to be brilliant and experienced and patient and confident. They need to be able to explain to me why something that looks superficially fantastic is quite worthless (yes it still hurts) and why another piece that is short and clunky actually hits many of the Assessment Objectives.
So where a school is teaching without examiners or subject specialists and flying by the seat of its pants somewhere between optimism and fortuity, marking by professionals is crucial. It can be a wake up call and it may mean a rethink and a need to do things a bit differently. The trouble is, the disappointment of August results quickly settles and rebuilds itself, manifesting as faux, groundless optimism until once again the following year brings everything crashing back down again.
Facing the truth and subsequently changing the strategy is an unpalatable part of life. It worked for us. Two years later on we had 10 A*s and three As. I put it all down to thorough marking because that is all we had. No teachers or tutoring. Just marking. And that very same team of super talented markers has now grown to serve schools worldwide. (Thank you to our team members, if you’re reading this!).