Enough With The Green Pens!October 21, 2015
The last two schools I worked at were not in any way related. They were in different local authorities. One was independent; one a state school in a MAT. Yet both of them had a policy that students should be marking (i.e. self-assessment or peer assessment) in green pen. Today, a teacher from London told me their school had the same policy. I asked about it on Twitter and got responses from schools in Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Tower Hamlets, Brent, Hampshire and many others saying it was school policy, and this included state schools and the independent sector. All had encountered the same phenomena.
Now, to be honest, I have only one problem with this policy and it won’t be a problem in all of these schools. It’s whether teachers have to distribute and collect in the damn green pens. If it’s the kids responsibility to bring a green pen and all the teachers have to do is say “use your green pen, now” then I don’t have a complaint. It will be what some teachers want and utterly harmless to other teachers to go along with it. However, if teachers have to change their routines before kids mark their books; hand out and collect in extra equipment; keep a class set of green pens ready or put kids in groups round pots of pens, then I would want the person who introduced the policy to have very good reasons for it.
And do they? Well, some teachers like kids to do marking in green pen, particularly if it involves redrafting as it makes it clear to that teacher what is the original work (blue or black), what is redrafting or corrections (green) and what is the teacher’s marking (red). In a decade and a half of teaching maths I’ve never had a problem distinguishing between students’ work, their marking and my marking , but perhaps it’s less clear in other subjects. And if a school has plenty of teachers who like to use this system, then ensuring the kids have their own green pens ready might help some teachers and is fine with me. That’s enough justification for that version of the policy.
However, if teachers are having to make an effort to get green pens in and out – if it is a source of work – then some teachers liking it is not enough. Those teachers who like green pens can make the effort; those who don’t, shouldn’t be made to. It is in this case that it is baffling to know why so many schools are compelling teachers to comply with this. When I asked about it, the most common answers I received were about it being convenient for managers who want to check that the marking policy, which might involve students responding to teachers’ comments, or even teachers responding to students responding to teachers, can be enforced. So, in effect, these are schools with a marking policy that creates extra work for the teachers both in lessons, and when marking, and extra work for managers who have to enforce it. In other words, an unwieldy mess of a marking policy. Sometimes the green pen phenomena was linked to other such marking policy messes as (compulsory) DIRT and dialogic marking. So much so that one tweeter even talked about being told that teachers must have “green pen training” in order to mark correctly.
So that leaves two questions:
- Why are schools still investing in these over-prescriptive marking policies?
- How are the details of the policy getting communicated between schools? (i.e. why green pen, and not, say, pencil?)
The answer to the first question is, probably, OFSTED, or at least rumours of what OFSTED want. The first stories of ridiculous marking policies seem to correspond to the start of OFSTED’s greater emphasis on looking in books (a by-product of moving away from judging teaching styles). But this is old news. Both the lastest OFSTED handbook, and some earlier clarification material, make it clear that there is no model marking policy (least of all one involving green pen) that they are looking for, that the marking policies can accept that what is required varies between subjects and that they inspectors should not be adding to “unnecessary workload”:
- Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning.
- While inspectors will consider how written and oral feedback is used to promote learning, Ofsted does not expect to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers.
- If it is necessary for inspectors to identify marking as an area for improvement for a school, they will pay careful attention to the way recommendations are written to ensure that these do not drive unnecessary workload for teachers.
And, knowing the background, I think I can safely assume this was a response to schools justifying burdensome marking policies on the basis of OFSTED. Teachers need to point this out.
As for the other question, how the green pen idea spread, I’m still puzzling over that one. It’s harder to spread misinformation online these days without somebody pointing out what OFSTED actually want. There are far fewer LA consultants to spread this guff. Inspectors can no longer use that position to advertise private consultancy work. So how did this fad spread? Via word of mouth? Via managers? Through private consultants? A conspiracy by Bic? Even those defending the green pen policy couldn’t tell me where they got it from.
If we could find out how these fads spread, and find out how to stop them spreading, we could do a lot to improve education in this country. In the meantime, all I can ask is that if you are a school leader and you are making teachers hand out green pens five times a day, just stop it. And if you are an inspector, and you see this happening in lessons, then why not mention that the green pen marking policy wastes time in lessons in the report? Do that just once, and let people on social media know which report it was in, and you will have given teachers a powerful weapon for restoring sanity to marking.