Bluffer’s Guide to Teaching Key Stage One

This article originally appeared in the magnificent Teach Primary 3-7.

“Hi, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a primary teacher,”

“Oh! What age?”

“I teach year two,”

“That…is…..SOOOO cute. Oh my gosh how old are they? Six? Adorable.”

“Yeah I know…” is what I say.

It’s not what I mean. Look at these grey hairs. Look at them. Does adorable cause that? Any adorableness, I’ve learnt, is in fact a very cunning disguise that these tiny whirlwinds of terror have adopted to lull unsuspecting adults into a spider’s web of carnage. Perhaps they have trapped you too. Perhaps, in a thoughtless and utterly regrettable ‘adventurous’ spirit, you agreed to take charge of a class of very small people.

Fear not! Follow this bluffer’s guide and you might just make it to July with some sort of sanity in tact. I’m kidding, of course, you have no chance of retaining sanity, but follow the steps and you should go the right kind of crazy.

You can’t control the chaos, but you can channel it.

You’ve done everything you can to sculpt your classroom into a bastion of tranquility, with calming colours and Chopin twinkling in the background. But do not kid yourself for one moment that this will provide any sort of defence against the blitzkrieg onslaught of 30 whirlwinds of pure energy and enthusiasm. Any attempt to stabilise and control the mayhem will leave you dashing around the classroom like a clown in a suit, desperately trying to keep dozens of plates spinning in some sort of unison.

Instead, you must embrace the disorder, find your inner zen and masterfully direct small groups into contained activities. Deploy your TA like a platoon commander to the ‘hottest zones’ of the classroom, triage the rest by temporarily distracting them and then focus their glorious curiosity on something resembling a learning intention.

Entertain yourself and your colleagues with high brow reprimands

The luxury of being able to reprimand a child by using logic, reason and an appeal to socially accepted norms is no longer an option for you. Gentle, regular reinforcement of what is and isn’t acceptable can become tiring and dull, so keep it interesting by referring to topical political developments and historical events.

Strike a solemn face and a serious tone as you declare that ‘you’ve walked into this classroom like you have no regard whatsoever for Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and I know that’s a document that you really respect.’ Or ‘You can’t just wander around the classroom like Caeser crossing the rubicon because we all know how that story ended. *Shaking your head* What would the senate think?’ They’ll be so confused that they usually just comply with your general instruction of ‘stop that’.   

Don’t touch that liquid.

I just don’t understand how so much snot can emerge from such a tiny person. They must have lost half their body weight with that sneeze. Keep calm, and remember to smile as you remove the thick brown-green sludge from your face, then cheerfully remind them ‘Oh, don’t forget that we put our hand over our mouth before we sneeze(/release the kraken.)’ Snot, unfortunately, will not be the only suspect liquid that you come across. Under no circumstances should you come into physical contact with a UBS (Unidentified Body Spillage), but instead order whoever has joined the staff most recently to mop it up. And if you’ve just joined, pay your dues. Also: alcohol gel, my friend. Bathe in it hourly.

Learn from the masters

It was with a deep sense of embarrassment and helplessness that I was first observed by a senior member of the team whilst in infant school. My classroom could most accurately be imagined by picturing the scene in Fantasia when Mickey Mouse puts on the comically large sorcerer’s hat, and is soon overwhelmed by multitudes of tiny axe-wielding broomsticks reaping devastation on all in their path. Then, like the wizened sorcerer of the story, my headteacher quietly slipped into the room, subtly waved their hand and restored peace and order in seconds. With time, you too will learn this magic. Watch closely and add any technique deployed by your more experienced colleagues to your growing arsenal.

Follow these guidelines and you may just survive your move into the lower end of schools. Sure year six may moan that they have the pressure of SATs, more content to cover and children beginning to understand the true meaning of the word defiant. But anyone who has worked in both knows that teachers of young children are the SAS of primary schools. Welcome to the club.



Bluffer’s Guide to Evidence Based Practice.

This article originally appeared in Teach Primary, a wonderful and intelligent publication to which you can subscribe here.

The quickest way to endear yourself to your primary colleagues and win their respect is to helpfully explain to them that everything they do is wrong and probably educationally damages their children. Whilst a commitment to becoming more informed by evidence might seem both intimidating and time-consuming, you’ll be happy to learn that it’s perfectly possible to bluff your way through this endeavour with little or no extra work.

So read on, brave teacher, and rightly earn your place as the most exasperating and pestiferous charlatan at staff meetings and beyond…

Don’t actually read any research

Just how do all of these teachers manage to read so much academic literature whilst doing the backbreaking job of being a classroom teacher? The answer – and don’t tell anyone – is that, and this really is the clever part, they don’t! Luckily, it’s almost impossible to be wrong about anything in education, because everybody disagrees about everything. Preface all of your pontifications with phrases such as ‘Of course all the evidence shows…’ or ‘I was actually reading an interesting study recently…’ In the unlikely event that someone actually calls you out on your claptrap, promise to ‘dig out the original article’ and then avoid them until they forget.

Take pot-shots at weak targets

 The wide ranging interest in education and lack of formal quality controls means that it’s pretty easy for dodgy initiatives and fads to take hold. A rookie error on the road to becoming an evidence based practitioner is to believe that you should contribute something positive to education; perhaps attempting to discover and share more effective forms of instruction, assessment and school improvement. I mean, fine, but that just sounds like a lot of work. It’s much easier to smarmily denigrate the fresh corpse of learning styles or brain gym. Revel in self-righteousness as you tear down the overlooked multiple intelligences poster, left up in the corner of the staffroom since the 90s. Exclaim sternly, ‘This has been thoroughly debunked!’ as you cast it into the recycling bin from whence it came. Suggest to your colleagues that they start calling you the debunker ‘as a joke’, then change your email signature.

Narrow your world view

Perhaps you may choose the more athentic, but ultimately pointless, path of actually engaging with academic research. Be warned, this can and will lead to depressing levels of cognitive dissonance in which you are regularly faced with the painful realisation that you’ve been doing your job horribly forever. To combat this, only read research which will reinforce your predisposed views and ideas. Psychologists call this ‘confirmation basis’. I’ve tried it and it really is lovely. This handy mental defence will ensure any nasty opposing views are either avoided or instantly dismissed out of hand.

Ignore context and nuance

In strong contention for the most unsurprising axiom of all time, Dylan Wiliam (NB famous educational researcher, drop his name often to boost your evidence credentials) reminds us that ‘everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere’. This introduction of thoughtful application and reservation around research findings presents a dangerous challenge to your (always humble) ‘I am the WORD, cower before my genius’ understanding of teaching and learning. At face value, it’s blisteringly obvious that a study involving English literature undergraduates may not be applicable to learning maths in year 1. On the other hand, reading up on the methodology and assessing the reliability of results within the context of your school or year group would take up like half your PPA. Don’t do it – read the headline, strap on your blinkers and just plough on.

Grow your audience 

As your confidence in spouting about effect sizes increases, you are likely to find that the staffroom is no longer a large enough audience for your enlightened sermons. It’s time to go national, baby. A twitter account is the quickest way to ‘establish’ yourself as an authority on the school scene. Start referring to yourself as an ‘educationalist’ (for you have transcended mere teacher status now).

Make some dollar

If you have carefully followed the above steps of this guide, you should now be well on your way to delivering your first keynote at least one national conference. And once your twitter follower count has crossed the 10k mark…cha-ching! It’s time to monetise. Set yourself up as a consultant promising to bring an ‘evidence based approach’ to terrified and confused headteachers. Try not to corpse as you assert that this can be done in a two hour CPD twilight at any point in the year.


Armed with this bluffer’s guide (and, if you absolutely must, a cursory google of the EEF toolkit rankings), you can confidently announce yourself as an ‘evidence based practitioner’. And you never know, if you shout that loudly enough, you might even be able to wangle a TLR out of it. You’re welcome.

Bluffer’s Guide to Surviving an Ofsted Inspection

This article originally appeared in Teach Primary, a wonderful and intelligent publication to which you can subscribe here.

Finally, you fully understand what it would feel for the characters in one of those asteroid apocalypse movies. Bruce Willis can’t help you now though, the death-line has already been crossed. It starts with headteacher charging into your classroom just before midday, wild eyed and sweating, manically gesturing a phone-hand-signal before blurting out, “We’ve had the call, everything is okay. EVERYTHING IS OKAY!”

Everything is quite clearly not okay. Everything is very far from okay. But fear not. You have 18 hours until impact, and armed with this trusty guide, you can bluff your way through your Ofsted inspection…

Pile additional pressure on teachers whilst insisting there’s nothing to worry about.

Briefly consider delivering an amended version of the “We will not go silently into the night!” speech from Independence Day, complete with dramatic music. Immediately disregard that plan and tell nobody you even considered it. Instead call a huge, panicked staff meeting like one of the town hall scenes from the Simpsons. Explain that we’ve all been expecting this and all we need to do is show them what we do on a day to day basis. Then don’t let anyone leave until every facet of the school is unrecognisable from its usual self.

Pile additional pressure on children whilst insisting that there’s nothing to worry about.

Primary aged children have an annoying tendency of being completely honest when asked questions by adults, and this is perhaps your biggest threat over the next few days. Embrace your inner Malcom Tucker and ensure that they are all briefed within an inch of their lives. Drill them with the literacy targets that you half-heartedly introduced two months ago, and ‘remind’ them of how they know how to explain their learning objective and success criteria. Prepare them for the fact that you will be wearing a thing called a ‘tie’ tomorrow, and that this is completely normal. Sternly explain that our ‘special visitors’ will be watching their behaviour very closely so it’s very important that they, you know, behave. For once.

Play your best team 

Whilst little Patrick’s refusal to do anything except shout “You smelly head” at the top of his voice has become endearing to the staff of your school, inspectors may not be so understanding. It’s lucky that Patrick has been looking a little peaky recently. In fact, come to think of it, a lot of the children with more ‘lively’ approaches to learning suddenly look a bit under the weather.  Seek out these characters and hold a compassionate hand to their brow, before asking them how they’re feeling. When they reply, puzzled, that they’re absolutely fine, send them to the medical room immediately. Suggest to their parents they stay off for the next 48 hours. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

Buy Red Bull.

Coffee is not going to cut it. Red Bull comes in crates.

The books. My god the books.

Triage, my friend. You cannot mark all of those books in the time available to you. It’s just not possible. You need three piles. First, your ‘show’ books; the trusty high attainers with neat handwriting – strategically place these in areas most likely to be perused by unwelcome hands. Now take books of the middle attainers and randomly highlight in an array of colours. Then have the children ‘edit’ their work in a variety of coloured pencils whilst shouting repeatedly, “You’re responding to feedback, just like always. What are you doing!? Responding to feedback, that’s right. Just like always.” Finally, there are the ‘hopeless cases’, the books that a thousand half terms couldn’t save. These will need to be lost in a series of unfortunate incidents including, but not limited to: accidentally being thrown out with their books from last year; being ruined by spilt tea; insisting the child took it home; and “I’m sure I’ve got it here somewhere” before hiding in the toilet until they go away.

Deprive yourself of everything that makes you an effective teacher.

Since you’ll be in school until midnight, take away pizza is the only viable option, but be sure to supplement this with biscuits, sweets and stockpiled generic junk food. If you absolutely must, you may sleep a total of two hours, but assert loudly the next morning that you didn’t sleep at all. Any sort of recreational activity that brings you joy and well-being is strictly banned. Surely that goes without saying.


Of course, you could disregard all of this advice and just do what you normally do, like some sort of maverick from an 80s cop show. In which case, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Bluffer’s Guide to Assessment

This article originally appeared in Teach Primary, a wonderful and intelligent publication to which you can subscribe here.


Okay, so assessment in primary is a mess, but let’s get something straight: when we complained that the government should stop interfering and let teachers get on with assessing children however we liked, we didn’t actually expect them to let us do it. So we’ve learnt two things. First, it turns out that the only thing worse than having a bad system is having no system at all, and second: the only thing worse than being told what to do is not being told what to do.

But since we moaned for so long about creating our own systems, we need to muddle something together, and preferably before the end of the academic year. To help guide you through the chaos, I present the bluffer’s guide to assessment:

Re-invent levels (but change the name)

So maybe levels were ‘unhelpfully vague’, ‘statistically flawed’ and ‘encouraged children to progress before ready’, but better the devil you know, am I right? When creating new assessment grids, you should just copy and paste the old level descriptors from APP but, and here’s the clever part, change the name at the top. Something like ‘progress indicators’ or ‘mastery thresholds’ will do. Preferably, you should pay a shady educational company thousands of pounds to do this for you, but instructing your work-wearied Deputy Head to bodge it together over a weekend is also acceptable.

Use the word ‘mastery’. A lot. (Don’t worry about what it means.)

Apparently, we should all now be doing mastery. Don’t worry, nobody really understands what it means, so you can just declare authoritatively that you are definitely doing mastery and shrug if anybody questions you. You can evidence mastery by adding a box to your planning pro forma that says ‘mastery’ and sticking in whatever you’ve decided your more-able students will be doing. If a student gets all of their work correct then smile and say things like “Well done Michelle. You’re doing mastery now.” Using apostrophes correctly is a good example of mastery, I think, but there are others too.

Generate as much data as possible.

Teachers have grown accustomed to spending large portions of their evenings and weekends pointlessly entering data into spreadsheets that nobody looks at. It would be both confusing and dangerously liberating for you to remove this requirement so, whatever you do, make sure that your new policy necessitates a bewilderingly over-burdensome data-entry process. If teachers question the system, respond with a sigh and the timeless cop-out of “I know, but Ofsted require it.” If teachers counter with the new Ofsted guidance, tighten your lips and proclaim that “they don’t really mean that’.

Continue to be terrified by Ofsted.

But, like, really really now.

If a parent asks about assessment, remember the three Cs.

Given the national coverage of the changes to assessment, some parents have unfortunately cottoned on to the fact that nobody knows what the hell we’re doing. They may approach you and say irritating things like “I don’t understand this new assessment system,” or “My child used to be on track but now you’re saying they’re behind,” or “What on earth is any of this supposed to mean. And why do you look so panicked? Hey, where are you going?”

Although such complaints are well-grounded, coherent and reasonable, it’s very important that we maintain the illusion that we know what we’re doing. They must never learn the truth. The government’s guidance of how to respond to a terrorist attack (run, hide, call for help) happily doubles as solid advice for dealing with parents with questions about assessment.

For the trickier customers, remember the three Cs: counter, confuse, confabulate. Start by explaining with conviction that everything is fine and that your new system is robust and reliable. Then throw every piece of educational jargon at your disposal at them, using at least a dozen acronyms, for example: “The APS for EAL and SEN was never comparable to our FMS, and IEPs further complicated matters”. Nod sagely as you do this. Finally, end by thanking them for their interest and allowing you to clear everything up. Promise to email them some documents, but never do.


And finally, keep your head down and wait for the whole thing to blow over.

Following this guide should protect you from ever being called out for not knowing what you’re doing but, more importantly, it will mean that the DfE never call our bluff and actually let us do anything for ourselves again. At which point we can safely go back to moaning about not being listened to.


Educational effectiveness research: I want to believe.

The following constitutes the introduction to an essay recently submitted for a masters that I’m currently undertaking in educational research. In particular I’m interested in the relationship between the body of knowledge known as educational effectiveness research (empirically validated approaches that ‘work’) and practitioners use (or not) of this knowledge to drive improvement at the classroom and school level.


The dynamic approach to school improvement (DASI), claims to provide educational researchers with a “theoretical framework for establishing a theory-driven and evidence-based approach to school improvement,” (Creemers & Kyriakides, 2012, p.4). The approach draws on the knowledge base provided by Educational Effectiveness Research (EER), and proposes a dynamic model which can be applied by practitioners and policy makers to improve schools. Although great progress has been made within the field over its thirty-year history, there remain several challenges.

One of the more contemporary difficulties rests in assumptions of the targets of education. One of the three main assumptions of the dynamic model is that ‘student outcomes’ are defined more broadly than the achievement of basic skills in core subjects such as language and mathematics. More specifically, ‘whole school curriculum aims (cognitive, psychomotor, metacognitive and affective)’ are specified as the important goals by which we now measure ‘effective schools’.

In their state-of-the-art-review on educational effectiveness research, Reynolds et al. (2014) concluded that “At the level of practice, it would… be difficult to find evidence of substantial take-up of the insights of EER at practitioner level in many countries”. Hallinger and Heck (2011) also lament the disconnect between EER (what we know about what makes schools effective) and school improvement (using this knowledge to make lasting improvements to schools and children’s outcomes).

To illustrate the point, the authors concede that they were unable to answer a school principal when asked

“Given what you know about leadership for learning, where would you advise me to put my effort as a school leader in order to gain the greatest improvement in learning for students at my school?’’ (Hallinger and Heck, 2011, pp. 1-2).

This is particularly disappointing given that the Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI), set up almost 30 years ago in 1988, aims to bridge the gap between researchers and practitioners.

There are many reasons which could explain the fraught relationship between EER and school improvement, several of which are proposed by Reynolds et al. (2014, pp. 217-218): the quantitative orientation of EER; lack of an underlying theory; the static nature of EER analyses; and neglecting core concerns of practitioners. Many of these problems stem from the historic purpose of EER, to refute the charge that “schools make no difference” (Bernstein, 1968). Such an assertion followed from the seminal report Equality of Educational Opportunity in which sociologist James Coleman concluded:

Schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his [sic] background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighbourhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. (Coleman et al., 1966, p. 325)

This is not to say that the sub-field of EER has not made positive contributions to the field of education. Perhaps most important has been its refutation of Bernstein’s contention. Reynolds et al. (2012, p. 1) conclude that the “field of EER has had some success in improving the prospects of the world’s children over the last three decades – in combating the pessimistic belief that ‘schools make no difference’.” The authors go on to suggest that EER is even beginning to generate a “reliable knowledge base about ‘what works’ for practitioners to use and develop, and in influencing educational practices and policies positively in many countries”.

Such an assertion is set within a contemporary national context in which there is evidence of a growing appetite for evidence from research informing practice. A prominent example is Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), an independent charity funded by the government to commission research evaluating the impact of different projects and initiatives in education. In 2013 the EEF was designated a ‘What Works centre’, with the hope that it would provide for state education what the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence offers the NHS. In its 2014-2015 annual report (EEF, 2016) the EEF cites a survey conducted by the National Audit Office, which suggests that 64% of school leaders had accessed its research ‘toolkit’, suggesting that practitioners are increasingly seeking ‘evidence based’ approaches to teaching and learning.

Given the above, it seems a reasonable to assert that we are currently on the precipice of a genuine awakening within education in which practitioners and researchers work symbiotically to help children across the country receive highly effective teaching. Thus, the broad enquiry that I wish to turn my focus toward during the course of my studies and throughout my thesis project is how, given the many criticisms and difficulties alluded to[1], the knowledge base accumulated from EER can be used to help schools improve the outcomes of pupils.

[1] There are a great deal more criticisms, which I do not have space to explore fully here. Chapter 1 of Improving Quality in Education, Dynamic Approaches To School Improvement (Bert Creemers and Leondias Kyriakides, 2012) gives a fairly comprehensive overview of the more difficult historic and present challenges facing the field.



David Reynolds, Pam Sammons, Bieke De Fraine, Jan Van Damme, Tony Townsend, Charles Teddlie & Sam Stringfield (2014) ‘Educational effectiveness research (EER): a state-of-the-art review’. School Effectiveness and School Improvement: An International Journal of Research, Policy and Practice, 25:2, 197-230,

David Reynolds, Christopher Chapman, Anthony Kelly, Daniel Muijs and Pam Sammons (2012) ‘Educational effectiveness: the development of the discipline, the critiques, the defence, and the present debate’. Effective Education. 3:2,1–19

Philip Hallinger & Ronald H. Heck (2011) ‘Exploring the journey of school improvement: classifying and analyzing patterns of change in school improvement processes and learning outcomes’. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 22:1, 1-27

Leonidas Kyriakides, Bert P. M. Creemers, & Panyiotis Antoniou, (2009) ‘The effects of teacher factors on different outcomes: two studies testing the validity of the dynamic model’. Effective Education, 1: 1, 12-23

Bert P.M. Creemers & Leonidas Kyriakides, (2012) ‘Improving Quality in Education: Dynamic Approaches to School Improvement’, Routledge: NY

This year’s primary assessment data will be useless because everyone is going to just game it.

This is not going to be a popular post. It is not an attack on primary teachers, although it might seem that way. It is simply outlining the consequence of a poorly conceived and badly implemented assessment framework and procedure. We had no choice in this being hoisted upon us, but what we do have a choice in how we respond to it. And I think that for us to stand any chance of being taken seriously as a profession we should stand together and honestly explain how we are going to ignore guidance to ensure that as many children as possible make the expected standard in KS1 and KS2.

The new assessment criteria

Levels were abolished last year for a multitude of reasons. They have not been replaced, but an interim assessment framework has been published by the government, which includes a number of ‘can do’ statements for reading, writing, maths and science. For children to be assessed as ‘working at the expected standard’ they are required to be ticked off against ALL statements, with evidence from a ‘broad range’ of work.

Alongside the statements, there is clear guidance in how children should be assessed. Most importantly:

  • Children should only be assessed once they have completed the key stage
  • The statements should not be used for ‘tracking’ progress part way through the year.
  • And single pieces of work should not be assessed against the framework.

Failing to learn from past mistakes

There are very good reasons for this accompanying guidance. It mitigates against what made levels such a poor measure of what a child can do. As I’ve previously mentioned, assessment criteria fall easily victim to Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

What does this mean? During a school year (or key stage) an entire curriculum is supposed to be delivered; taught and learnt. At the end of it, we are interested in what children are able to do, so we apply measures to assess them. Clearly you can’t assess everything so you choose a small number of measures (i.e. a sample) which ostensibly allow you to make inferences about the entire curriculum (i.e. domain).

This should be done retrospectively, of course, but since people have the measures beforehand, and since they are under such pressure to deliver top results, they are hugely incentivised to teach to the test, or make the small number of measures targets for children to check off. This can be done quite quickly. If a measure is ‘uses varied and ambitious vocabulary’ then you simply make your learning objective ‘To use varied and ambitious vocabulary’, teach a tight lesson and hey presto, one of the measures can be ticked off.

Clearly this makes the ‘measures’ useless in any meaningful sense, since the children had very little opportunity to be successful. The hard work was done for them.

We can see now more clearly why the three constraints above were put in place. They stop this gaming by it being explicitly stated that children should only be assessed at the end of the Key Stage (year 2 or year 6), that lots of work is assessed against each standard, and that no tracking (checking which statements have and haven’t been met) should take place during the year.

How we’ll all ignore the guidance and game the data

Already, many teachers have admitted to shirking this guidance, happily falling into the same trap of levels. In many cases, teachers do not even realise they are gaming their data. They believe that assessing children and then teaching to the gaps (i.e. turning the measures into explicit targets) is good teaching. Furthermore, it is seen as the only way to guarantee as many children as possible make the expected standard.

So here is what is (or will be) happening. Teachers will take each child and RAG them against each of the statements for reading, writing, maths and science. Any child with red will be prioritised (another flaw in levels) whereas ‘green’ children will be left alone. Lessons will be adjusted to ensure that all children can easily demonstrate the ‘can do’ a statements (for example, turning one of the statements into a learning objective). Children will be reassessed, and red will turn to green (this is the very definition of ‘tracking’ which we aren’t supposed to do because it invalidates the measures).

There will be some poor teachers and schools out there who follow the guidance to the letter, and only sit down to assess their children against the standards at the end of May/beginning of June with a broad range of work for each child. They will find themselves in a pickle because it will take them between 80 and 400 hours to make sound judgements necessary. Most teachers have realized this and so have started assessing children now (even though the key stage hasn’t been completed, thereby ignoring the guidance). In making the assessments now, they will have another few months to ‘fill the gaps’ or teach the test, thereby narrowing the curriculum and making the data useless.

Secondary school teachers will get a bunch of kids through their door, almost all ‘at the expected standard’ which tells them nothing more than that a kid copied down some adjectives when they were very explicitly told to.

Suffocating young writers.

This article originally appeared in the Times Educational Supplement, a magnificent publication which you can subscribe to here.


It’s hard to describe to those who don’t work in primary schools the intense satisfaction and pride that travels alongside watching young children transform from novice writers, unable to transcribe a simple sentence, to authors who pen an entire story, woven and plucked from their imaginations. Our role as teachers in this process is critical in nourishing two key aspects of accomplished writing.

The first is the mechanical process, which includes letter formation, correct punctuation and sentence construction. But alongside this, children must acquire a creative flair that allows them to come up with ideas, innovate, organise their thoughts and arrange them on a page for some imagined audience. In short, writing is a tremendously complex and difficult process, consisting of dozens of sub-processes making painful demands on the pitifully limited working-memory that we are all stuck with.

When trying to assist children in balancing all these spinning plates and coming out the other side as independent and confident writers, marking can get in the way. In fact, I’d argue marking can have unintended consequences that end up doing more harm than good.

Since it is so easy for those who do not teach a class full time to forget, it is worth laying out just what a rigorous marking policy can cost in terms of time. An average primary school teacher will deliver at least one maths, one literacy and one topic lesson per day. With a class of 30, that totals 90 books to be marked after the kids go home. If only two minutes is given to read and respond to each book, it will take three hours to clear the pile. Three hours of marking. Every day.

While these overly-burdensome marking policies are written by the senior leadership teams of individual schools, the high stakes nature of Ofsted inspections has caused many, especially those carrying the cross of a ‘requires improvement’ status, to forget exactly who marking is for, and why we do it.

I have found myself guilty of this. After noticing a child wasn’t starting a new line for a new speaker while writing dialogue, I explained this convention and told her to follow it for the rest of their piece. Then, without thought, I scribbled in the margin exactly what I had just told her. “What are your doing?” the child asked, confused.

“Don’t worry, that’s not for you.” I replied.

Well who the hell is it for, then? I later asked myself.

Although there have recently been some very promising reforms and clarifications, spearheaded by National Director Sean Harford, Ofsted must bear some responsibility for the chaos of marking and the potentially damaging effect it is having on students. Schools, desperate to secure a magic ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating from Ofsted, scour recent reports for clues of how to impress their impending visitors. A simple search of the Watchsted website returns comments from recent inspection reports like:

Teachers’ written comments in marking do not always give pupils precise enough guidance on how to improve their work -108800

Pupils do not have a clear understanding of what they have achieved or how they can improve their work because marking is not always thorough – 115606

It is not difficult to see how these comments, both published in the last twelve months, could mold and supercharge a school’s marking policy. If this were only crushing teachers’ work/life balance with unreasonable demands, it would be bad enough, but this baseless ‘advice’ means children aren’t able to stretch their wings as writers and take ownership of their work. They follow a checklist laid out by an expert who does all of the hard work for them. Writing is reduced to a dull, generic formula of fronted adverbials and developed noun phrases.

When caught in the maelstrom of life in the classroom, with duties freewheeling down a never ending to-do list, it is so easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture; the end goal. In short, we want our students to become proficient and motivated writers. The work of professor Robert Bjork shows how mechanistic feedback from teachers can get in the way of the former.

He has demonstrated that ‘desirable difficulties’ – i.e. not spoon feeding the student – improves student’s retrieval of important information in the longer term. After all, why would a child remember to start their sentence with a capital letter if they know that you’ll circle them all for them later that evening.

“They are desirable because they enhance long-term retention and transfer,” he explains, “they’re difficulties because they pose challenges. They slow down the rate that your own performance is improving as a student. And the consequence of that is that they can be easily unappreciated.”

But what of motivation? Surely marking children’s work at least ensures that they are driven to write?

It seems plausible enough, but rests on a mistaken belief of what motivates us. By rewarding every piece of work with a gold star or written praise, we are laying extrinsic motivators on top of an activity that should be inherently desirable. In Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn makes the point more clearly, summarising one of the most robust findings from social psychology: “the more you reward someone for doing something, the less interest that person will tend to have in whatever he or she was rewarded to do”.

A more natural way to motivate children to write is to provide an authentic purpose for doing so. So, asking children to write letters to public figures or organisations (and sending them), publishing articles for a school newspaper, or creating recipes to feature in a cookbook that is sent home to parents will provide a much greater drive than writing ‘so I can improve my level’ (a genuine response from a child when I asked why we were practising writing letters).

Perhaps one of the most promising uses of technology over the last five years in primary school is the Pobble website (previously Lend Me Your Literacy), which allows pupils to publish their work and have it read and commented on by teachers and students across the globe. Forgetting capital letters, then, becomes something that a student is compelled to check not because their teacher scribed it as a ‘wish’, or because it features on their target sheet in the front of their book, but because it’s embarrassing to miss them when you have a real audience.

If we abandon the received wisdom that every piece of writing must be post-scripted with obligatory Praise and Next Steps which require no reflection or thought, then we might just start to see children emerge as real writers, unafraid to make messy drafts, but meticulous final versions. They may well actively seek feedback and be compelled to implement it, rather than have it enforced upon them. They may well begin to flourish and light a fire within themselves that we couldn’t put out if we tried.