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:

  1. Why are schools still investing in these over-prescriptive marking policies?
  2. 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.



  1. […] Teaching in British schools « Enough With The Green Pens! […]

  2. Yep, same thing at my school and yes, it does involve teacher giving them out. Yet another mindless, pointless thing that takes time away from actually learning about stuff.

  3. Do you remember the (IIRC) rather good Red or Green Pen blog? Could they be responsible? I see a lot of different schools and the green pen thing is pretty extensive. It doesn’t explain chidren using green but there was definitely a research finding reported in Inside the Black Box (Black and Wiliam) that children preferred teachers not to give feedback in red. No idea where purple has come from. Don’t know if it’s still the case but I went to school in Scotland and we wrote almost everything in pencil. Has anyone tried white?

  4. Don’t forget the potential hypocrasy around … those who insist on different colours rarely have to demonstrate their own use of the policy – they don’t teach enough lessons.

  5. Have you met green sticker marking yet? Print a dialogue AfL template onto a dayglo green address label, and require their use for major pieces of feedback. They’re expensive and give me headaches to look at them. Plus the comedy potential of pupils writing corrections in green pen on a green background.
    The problem isn’t stickers as such… you can do nifty things with mail merge. It’s that the only possible reason I can see for their horrible colour is to make it obvious whether approved marking is being done.
    I first encountered this about five years ago, from a head of department who had heard about it somewhere. Despite my moaning above, it’s not intrinsically bad, like brain gym. It’s just unpleasant and sometimes pointless. But a lot of schools seem to struggle with the difference between “you could try this” and “you must do this”. Ofsted circa 2009 has a lot to do with this- even if the organisation has moved on, the mindset it encouraged persists.

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  7. I have a problem with red/green marking as this is the most common form of colour blindness and I have in the past mixed up red and green marks in pen. I am not a teacher, but this choice of colours seems suboptimal.

  8. I’ve always blamed Shirley Clarke for the pen insanity. A few years ago her ‘methods’ became ubiquitous in Primary School Marking Schemes. Her name has gone so far as to become an intransitive verb with reference to marking in primary school moderation meetings : “Oh we Shirley Clarke” , “Do you Shiirrrley Clarke?” I Shirley wish we didn’t.

    • It seems so clear that the moment you make any form of dialogic marking compulsory it will lead to the prioritising of means over ends. I only want to get student responses when I think it will be constructive and I do not believe that is necessarily frequent.

  9. We are still on the teacher green, pupil red regime! One of the very few instructions that I ignore. Don’t forget, the consultants haven’t gone, they are self and agency employed. Some were peddling VAK to us last year. Keep hitting that nail!

  10. […] This week’s controversy over green pens and other marking policy nightmares; […]

  11. The reason SLT likes the different colour pen thing is because it makes their job easier. When they scrutinise books all they have to do is look for green or purple and they can say peer assessment or whatever has taken place.

    It has nothing to do with teaching and learning (not much to do with effective scrutiny either) and everything to do with not caring about teachers’ workload only their own.

  12. My school does the green pen self and peer assessment, with green highlighter and pink highlighter teacher marking, blue pen for support staff comments and red pen for teacher comments. Their books look like Blackpool Pier.
    Just found this blog. Nice one.

  13. Coming out of the closet – we use green pen and I think it’s a jolly good idea and really does help children make better progress by reflecting on their learning.myes we do the full ‘rainbow’ red=teacher, green =pupil, blue= peer and purple= TA. And partly it is to make it easier to see if marking is having an impact ( pointless if not) with the children then learning from the marking and improving their work and to see if peer marking is happening occasionally and to distinguish that and teacher marking from TA marking. If I make sure you have abundant quantities of pens already on tables- is it so wicked to want one little bit of my job to be a bit easier.LONG LIVE GREEN ( and other coloured) PENS. In fact we are about to start using highlighters too – different colours for different bits of success criteria…..stop laughing, it’s a great idea. Obviously anything can become crazy in the hands of fundamentalist maniacs and what works for English doesn’t work for maths but I might have to appropriate the gay rainbow flag as a sign of my pride in being a coloured pen afl devotee

  14. ‘really does help children make better progress’ you have evidence for this? Writing reflections in a green pen improves progress?

    ‘ is it so wicked to want one little bit of my job to be a bit easier ‘ if you are SLT and it makes the teacher’s job harder – yes it is.

    You must be primary- pens on tables?

    • Yes I’m primary. Having your own room set up how you like it with same children a huge advantage time wise. Children responding to marking and making immediate improvements does in my experience lead to demonstrable progress- I can see it in their books. There’s nothing magic in the colour green itself of course! But it does make it easier for me to see that it is being done- thankfully.

  15. […] sensitive souls with the dreaded red pen (see Andrew Old’s amusing observational blog on the ‘Green Pen Debate’).  Once all the marking has been done and constructive feedback given, you can then set about […]

  16. […] have spoken out against many of the practices that go on in their name (see the recent pens debacle here and here, my hatred for the word “Outstanding“, this response to a guardian secret […]

  17. […] preoccupied with looking for particular things in lessons. Like triple marking (and the infamous green and purple pens). OFSTED were usually willing to say they weren’t looking for these things, […]

  18. Marking in green pen! LOL, we simply can’t offend today’s coddled generation in any way (severe sarcasm intended)! I’m sooooooooooo sick and tired of worrying about ‘student feelings’. I’m the teacher and I mark in red for obvious reasons that do not need explaining. If an administrator mandates me using a green pen I will promptly label that as a micro-manager and / or what I call ‘an educational hippy’ (both are a scourge to contemporary teachers). A teacher that spends more time worrying about educational fads and student feelings rather than the real work i.e. curriculum planning, pedagogy etc, needs to leave the industry. Look up Thomas Sowell’s video about ‘tough teachers’. That’s what kids need, not this hippy bull-crap.

  19. I have encountered students who have deliberately vandalised or loose (i.e. on the floor, in a pencil case) the “green for growth” pens acting as a catalyst to purposefully waste teaching time during the counting back in stage.

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