Sunday, 16 December 2018

Mock marking: we have a problem.

When you place the GCSE papers next to each other, you cannot help but notice that students have to write pages and pages of answers for the English GCSE papers. Occasionally, I have heard many subjects talk about how the 6 mark question is tricky because students have to write a lengthy paragraph. At times, for English, it feels like an endurance test rather than a test of knowledge and skill. The papers equate to several essays. GCSE English Language equates to four essays in one hour and forty five minutes a paper. Literature has two essays on one paper and three on the other paper.

But the exams are not only an endurance test for students,  they are also an endurance test for teachers. I’d love to say things are nice and fair in the world of mocking marking, but I can’t. Things are far from fair. English teachers would kill for a quick one word answer question or a table to mark. The only ‘joy’ teachers get is the four mark question and that is a short lived joy, when you have four essays to mark after that question. As a curriculum leader, I will often present leaders and governors with a copy of the exam paper, because I have to clarify what the paper covers and expects. All too often, the common thought about English is ‘write an essay about a story and write a pretty story’. It is gruelling. Gruelling to do. Gruelling to mark. You can see the penny drop on their faces as I turn page after page before leadership teams.  And, then students have to…. and then they have to … and then next they have to… and finally they… You can see that look on disbelief on their faces as they equate the amount of writing a students does with the pain and anguish it takes them to send one simple email to staff.

Yes, I might not have to clean the sinks after a lesson, go out in the cold, rain and snow or even have to explain the complexities of sexual intercourse to young giggling people, but I have to read lots and lots of work and that is considerably time consuming. I’d love to say that the opportunity to read a book in a lesson or watch a DVD version of the set text balances things out. It doesn’t and I think leadership teams need to look at what their English departments do in their schools, because there is a big problem with the marking of English mocks in schools. Many schools are getting teachers to mark four English papers in one exam period. That’s the equivalent of teachers marking thirteen essays per student in a class. Oh, don’t forget to mark KS3 books every fortnight and write some reports.  

I am a big fan of the new style of GCSEs – yes, there is one fan- but I think that they have caused a pressure point in schools. The knock-on effect of binning coursework in English has created a focal point of marking. If you are married to an English teacher, don’t expect to see them in the annual mock months of November and December. There are weeks of marking, in some cases.

The government and exam boards are not helping with the process as the emphasis has always been on students taking the exams in Year 11 and not Year 10, which compounds the problem. The majority of Year 10 is teaching and Year 11 becomes the preparation for the skills. Ultimately, the problem is that English teachers teach two GCSE courses and not one, like most subjects. Oh, and they are double weighted so they are really, really important to the whole school. We are marking double the amount of mock papers.

We need to address the inequality somehow. We are compelled to teach two GCSEs moral and educationally, but we need to shout about how the system needs to support English teachers. Honestly, I would have left my NQT year if I was faced with level of marking I have now for the GCSE papers. It is unsustainable and we need to acknowledge this.

I am in a lucky position that I am supported by the leaders in my school. They understand the marking situation and so we’ll have one paper marked before Christmas and one after. This sadly isn’t the case everywhere and we need to shout out about it. We need to be talking to leaders and teams and see what they can do to help. A shrug of the shoulder is not enough. A ‘well that is how it is’ smile is not enough. We need support and actions. We need schools to acknowledge the level of work involved and support teachers with the workload.

A long, long time ago English departments were given time off the timetable to moderate coursework folders. I want English departments to have that day off timetable again to mark exam papers. This then would start to address the imbalance. Teachers shouldn’t have to work Saturday and Sunday to mark mock papers in time. That’s what is happening. And, I think some teachers are thinking this is normal.   

Workload is a paramount issue in schools and a thorn in the teacher retention’s side. I feel that we need to speak up about it. We have a situation here that is damaging.

I want leaders to engage with English departments and see what you can do to help. Yes, you may want the results, but you’ll not get them when the team is burnt out by the exam marking. The papers might be marked, but the teaching will be mediocre because the teachers are tired and exhausted.  What would your teaching be like if you had to mark thirty sets of thirteen essays in-between lessons?

Thanks for reading,



  1. There are few problems with the overall argument that English teachers have it unduly hard with their mock papers:
    1. One of your arguments is that they are twice as important given the double-weighting of English results. This doesn't make the marking more challenging and accuracy is equally important to other departments.
    2. The suggestion that other subjects have one-word answers is tosh. You neglect the full range of humanities subjects, for example, or A-level economists.
    3. English teachers typically have one set to mark, unlike some who are the only subject specialist in their department and thus have far more sets of mocks to mark, including A-level mocks in a similar period.
    4. While you teach two qualifications, you are rewarded with far more curriculum time than others, often twice as much. So while you are mock marking, your colleagues are planning, teaching and assessing other lessons. These lessons often come with considerable mark loads themselves in internal examinations (think of RS teachers who often see the majority of the school and have to mark papers for them).
    5. Your additional teaching time is reflected in additional 'gained time': like other teachers, you have your pressure points in the year and easier times.

    1. Sorry, Warren. This blog isn't attacking other subjects. It is about the unbelievable expectations surrounding the new GCSEs in English. The last thing I want to do is compare subjects. I just wanted to highlight an issue for LMTs.

    2. Unless you don't have gained time because your school has a June rollover.

    3. Warren you have willfully missed the point. I teach two classes of year 11s three times a week. I've just had two weeks to mark four sets of exams. It took me 31 hours. I had to meet the same deadline as subjects where it took considerably less overall time. It's no good saying "Well an A Level teacher has way more to mark" as I work in a comprehensive school.

  2. I agree with your blog Xris. It very much feels like where I work it is a "tough, that's just how it is". And planning lessons isn't as arduous as exam marking (referring to the above comment), it's the more fun part of the job.

  3. I totally agree with you Xris32. Combining the lenghty essays that must be marked with other responsibilities of an English does burn me out

  4. I couldn't agree more. I also feel that the subjectivity of marking is something that adds a ridiculous amount to marking speed. I have been teaching for a decent time but consistently re-read, pause, calculate, judge, doubt and reconsider my marking. Being so open to interpretation, marking in English is so far from being straight forward and certainly not quick.