Marking is a hornet

Written marking takes up huge amounts of teachers’ time. If the average teacher marks for just over 5 hours a week, that’s 200 hours of marking a year. In a secondary school of 100 teachers, that’s 20,000 hours of marking.

Written marking is non-renewable: it’s a one-off. Each written comment I put in a pupil’s book only impacts once on that one pupil. What else could we do with that 20,000 hours, that would impact more positively on future pupils and other teachers? Marking has a very low ratio of impact-to-effort, and a very high opportunity cost.


There are much better ways to share feedback so pupils improve. There are much better ways to focus teachers’ limited time. That’s why in some schools, teachers no longer mark pupils’ books – at all.

Feedback is a butterfly 

Feedback is effective when it is timely (not too late after the task), frequent (not too scarce) and acted on (not ignored). Written marking often militates against this: teachers burn out and it becomes less timely, less frequent and less acted on by pupils and teachers.

There are many ways of giving feedback without written marking:


What if we continually worked on making our feedback have the highest-impact possible on learning?


Feedback should maximise the responsibility pupils take for self-checking, correcting, editing and redrafting their work. It should maximise preemptive teaching, preventing frequent errors and common misconceptions; it minimises laborious, slow, reactive written comments. Although teachers should still read pupil books, score exams, and circle misspellings to be corrected within lessons, written marking of pupil books outside lessons might be scrapped altogether. To monitor marking as evidence to hold teachers accountable for pupil progress is an illusion – comforting for managers, but unhelpful for teachers and pupils.

What I’ve seen is that this shift transforms staff culture. No teacher has to take home books in evenings, weekends and holidays; no manager is scrutinising pupil books for frequent teacher comments; no teacher is desperately marking books at the last minute before an impending book scrutiny. Instead, teachers are trusted. Teachers can focus on teaching well, ensuring every pupil is understanding and remembering, and helping their pupils love their subjects. Pupils are motivated, working harder than they ever have before, and improving their writing fast, as they take responsibility for checking and improving it.

When the school has 100 teachers, stopping teachers from marking even just 5 hours a week will save us 20,000 hours every year. Good school leaders stop people from doing good things, so they focus on better things. Next time, I’ll blog about moving from unsustainable marking loads to renewable resourcing.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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20 Responses to Marking is a hornet

  1. Reblogged this on Blogcollectief Onderzoek Onderwijs and commented:
    This teaching tip by Joe Kirby combines more effective feedback with less time and energy spent by teachers marking students’ work.

  2. julietgreen says:

    My last INSET on marking was very much along these lines. It was patently obvious, however, that not all leaders were on board with the idea that effective feedback was not about making sure every piece of work was marked. THAT is still in our school policy. It may take some while to persuade them to change.

  3. Clare Sealy says:

    Great ideas- but I’d label most of them as forms of ‘marking’. So it’s not so much a case of no marking but rather ‘smart’ marking. Also- what about English? There’s only so much they can pick up from seeing good models and 1:1 great but very, very expensive…and can only be done during the day when students are present. Whereas traditional marking is cheap in terms of money, if expensive in terms of teachers’ time…which has a knock on financial cost somewhere along the line- hard to quantify. Will share with my staff and try and cut down on ‘remote’ marking.

  4. Congratulations on being the first, not just to point out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, but to actually kit him out in decent clobber

  5. Mr Sugden says:

    A great read. Marking is only as useful as the written feedback acted upon. So there are many levels it can go wrong at; infrequeny marking, marking which doesn’t give effective feedback (which should include how to improve), students not acting on feedback, and teachers not acting on the pupils’ corrected or improved work! Marking for markings sake is pointless and just a bureaucratic exercise at the end of the day. I’ eased the idea of Tom Riddle’s diary from the Harry Potter book ‘The Chamber of Secrets’ as an analogy with students – the simple idea that if I write in their books, they have to write back. The problem we have in science in particular is the fact that we cover so many varied topics, at KS3 especially, so the timeframe to mark work, give effective feedback, assess students rewritten work or revised ideas and chase up students that never acted on feedback in the first place is incredibly challenging! My biggest issue is the hours teachers work, especially those new to the profession. My current school has a 25 period week (5 1hr lessons per day) and a typical teacher will teach 22 lessons. It is simply not possible to effective mark under such constraints. As a Lead a Practitioner I have 18 lessons a week. Not only does this represent less classes to teach, but it results in less marking to do and more of my (increased) time can be spent effectively marking the classes that I do teach. The difference is huge. I can give effective, constructive feedback and check per marking that students do – which many teachers never check! Thanks for sharing.

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  8. saysmiss says:

    Really enjoyed this- am currently looking at an overhaul of F&M policy, specifically with wellbeing in mind. Can I ask what weekly subject quizzes in Eng would look like? Comprehension is easy to give a score to but the subject requires further than that and it would be difficult to provide an instant score (the thorn behind marking I suppose). Thanks

  9. David Owens says:

    Really thought provoking and accurate in its ideas….. do you ask pupils to peer assess / mark their own work in a specific colour I wonder. I am keen to understand how this can translate fully in Maths – clearly we can review conceptual errors made across the class, and highlight excellent method…. does your feedback in Maths focus on anything else?

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