The Curse of the Red Pen


I don’t want to get all “John Lennon” on you, but I’d like to ask you to imagine something for me. Imagine there’s no OFSTED, it isn’t hard to do. No lesson observation, and no grading too. Imagine all the teachers, teaching how they chose. If that was the case, if there was no one watching, would you still mark books?

When I started teaching, most teachers were still marking using a “flick and tick” approach with some corrections. That was about it. Since then we have seen huge and unwieldy marking policies which have added to workload and driven teachers from the classroom. Is this because marking books is a hugely efficient way of improving progress? I’d suggest not.

I have seen marking policies which have stated that “there will be some evidence of marking in books every two weeks.” What on Earth does this mean? It means that a teacher of a non-core subject might be marking every night of the week but will be marking two hours worth of work at a time. A teacher of English might be marking twice a week but will be trying to plow through ten hours worth of work. Which is it that the policy wants? It makes no mention of what should be marked or why. The evidence is the key feature.

We are still seeing schools stating which of a rainbow of colours should be used to mark what and by whom. I have actually heard a teacher say “I took home my marking at the weekend but I forget to bring a green pen and only had red ones so I couldn’t mark them.” If we didn’t know the world had gone mad before, we do now.

This is all because we are encouraged to mark for an audience. We are marking due to a belief that “OFSTED want it” or because pupil voice shows that they appreciate it. We are marking because it shows that teachers are doing something – and we all know how important it is that we look busy.

Feedback is an important part of the learning process, but we mustn’t conflate feedback with marking. Marking a set of books, covering work from weeks ago with comments on how that piece could have been improved, is inefficient and often not effective either.

So what are the alternatives?

  1. Be clear in the first place. If pupils are getting the answer right, or are practicing a skill successfully, there is less feedback needed.
  2. Share the success criteria. What will a successful piece of work look like? Once students have a checklist they can use it to proof-read and improve their work before submitting it. Far less feedback needed.
  3. Live feedback. Some feedback you don’t want to give straight away. You want pupils to struggle and go through the process of realising their error and correcting it. With simpler tasks though you need to nip errors in the bud, as they are doing it. I can guarantee that when drawing climate graphs, some students will confuse the line and bar graphs. I’ll circulate as they are working and correct as they go.
  4. Whole-class feedback. Writing the same comment in every book is inefficient and soul destroying. Look through pupil books and make a list of common errors. Go through them with the class and give them the opportunity to make the corrections needed.
  5. Quiz. Feedback works both ways. I want to know whether pupils know the things that I want them to know. I’ll start the lesson with a quick quiz. Questions on one slide, answers on the next. A few minutes and then I can ask “hands up who got question one right?” etc. Quick and easy. Effective and efficient.

When I mark a piece of work I do so with a purpose. I am looking for something specific that I will give feedback on. That’s because I am marking as if no one is watching.


3 thoughts on “The Curse of the Red Pen

  1. An interesting post Mark, have we all gone a little crazy with how we mark books? Red pen, Green pen, different colour highlighters etc. I like you simple list of alternatives, there must be a clear purpose to your marking……
    I do always look forward to your blog posts


    • Thanks Becka. I keep coming back to two ideas. 1) Are we just doing something for an audience? 2) Is is effective and efficient? I think there is a lot of “fat” in teaching which could be cut.


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