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Balancing workload, assessment and feedback in the primary classroom

Written by: Andy Moor
12 min read

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) reported this year that 45 per cent of young teachers have concerns over their mental health and are considering leaving the profession, with 85 per cent citing workload as a factor (NUT, 2017). With the challenges of the new curriculum and assessment frameworks, there is a sense that the profession has come to a critical point, and needs to do things differently.

At St Bernard’s RC Primary School, a voluntary academy in Cheshire, we have sought to meet these challenges and adopt a different approach.

A project was carried out in two phases, initially across 23 schools looking at embedding formative assessment (phase 1) and subsequently followed by a more focused development of feedback practice with staff at St Bernard’s (phase 2). With improved outcomes for students always our focus, it was important throughout to ensure that in addressing workload for staff, quality wasn’t compromised for students. Embedding formative assessment and using technology made this possible.

Phase 1 In 2011, my team and I worked with author and researcher Shirley Clarke, and this changed everything. We saw how transformational formative assessment could be and how we could engage with professional development through research of our own. Building on this, we led a project across the region to embed formative assessment strategies using resources from, and supported by, Dylan Wiliam. All schools engaged in training to embed strategies using a teacher learning community (TLC) model, where experience, skills and failures were shared. At the end of this, the impact in participating schools was clear – practice, evaluation and, in many cases, Ofsted judgements, were improved. Embedding formative assessment really did make a difference.

One key aspect we explored was effective feedback. At the beginning of 2014, lesson grading was removed from inspections. An increased focus on written marking then emerged within schools and sadly (I now recognise), I expected my staff to provide written feedback in abundance. Examples were proudly shown to colleagues as best practice. Clare Sealy describes a similar journey in her blog (Sealy, 2017). Ofsted praised schools within the research group for their marking approaches and everyone seemed delighted with themselves. The negative impact however, was incredible, with teachers working late into the night to feed the policy. The recommendation by Wiliam (2011) that ‘feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor’, was certainly not found here: something had to give.

Phase 2 Given the challenges around workload and the removal of national curriculum levels in 2014, there was work to be done. Knowing the impact of effective formative assessment, including feedback (Education Endowment Foundation, 2017a, 2017b), we therefore set about exploring the following questions:

  1. How do we get formative assessment (including effective feedback) embedded
    in every class?
  2. How do we ensure our assessment system represents the learning in the classroom?
  3. How do we make it manageable?

With the power of formative assessment and feedback known, we knew we had to explore ways in which this could be done most effectively. We needed to focus on what mattered most and remove that which had no impact. As Redressing the Balance (National Association of Head Teachers, 2017) notes: ‘The core focus of assessment should be on supporting learning and not simply tracking progress.’

To provide integrity to the information our assessment system held, we developed an approach to capturing everyday learning. There had always been a disconnect between learning in the classroom and the data shown in trackers. At the same time, we were aware that the subjectivity of formative assessment had always been a problem (Kahneman, 2015). We sought therefore to reduce subjectivity in breaking down broad curriculum statements into more progressive steps. The result was a curriculum that teachers could use to plan lessons. Alongside this we created a system and digital tool, aptly named Balance, to capture the learning from these steps using a ‘learning wheel’ with a scale from 0-9.

We could then show a student’s true learning journey throughout the year, which would include a clear view of depth of understanding.

It was important to show those students who were ‘nearly there’, to avoid teachers moving on to the next concept before the previous one was secure, supporting the notion that ‘more detailed and nuanced information about each pupil’s learning profile is essential’ (NAHT, 2017). As Jamie Pembroke has argued, many approaches after the removal of national levels simply recreated the issues that we sought to escape, with students placed in broad bands to assess their progress. These bands tell us nothing about learning and often confuse the picture completely (Pembroke, 2015, 2016). In the Balance system, we aimed to have a simple view of what students could and couldn’t do at any point of the year. The intention and outcome was a principled approach to assessment, as defined in the final report from the Commission of Assessment Without Levels (2015), which states that ‘over time new forms of assessment should be a part of day-to-day teaching avoiding the need for unnecessary tracking and recording’.

To make assessment manageable, we engaged in a school-based research project in which staff explored a range of approaches to providing feedback without the need for burdensome written marking.

Phase 2.1 Initially we changed our policy to allow for a range of feedback approaches and took our direction from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (2016) to ensure feedback was ‘motivating, manageable and meaningful’. With verbal feedback the obvious and most effective form to achieve these three principles, we directed all staff to choose at least one group to give focused verbal feedback to during each lesson. These books would not be marked and set aside.

Staff responded positively, but some still found it hard to wean themselves from the intensive marking they were used to. There was a sense of institutionalisation where understanding of ‘norms’ had been affected by decades of marking expectation. In effect, therefore, the impact of reducing written and increasing verbal feedback was hard to achieve.

We soon realised that staff were still overburdened. If written marking remained a barrier to reducing teacher workload, and the research behind its effectiveness was at best questionable (Elliott et al., 2016), we needed to structure a new way for our teachers and students. Given that teachers were finding it hard to pull away from marking, we took the decision to completely stop doing it.

Phase 2.2 We started to refine practice in a Year 5 class. Mike, the teacher, began to consider how he could give each student verbal feedback, for every subject, every day. The answer soon became clear. If assessment strategies within the classroom were used effectively, it would not be necessary to do this. The following strategies were found to be most effective in supporting a whole school feedback approach (although this is not an exhaustive list).

Practical approaches

  • Furniture. Through moving desks from square configurations to an L shape, staff could position themselves to speak effectively to all four students, who still had the ability to work together. This simple change resulted in more effective conversations. With Balance accessible on iPads in the classroom, each feedback session allowed specific points of learning to be captured at the same time.
  • Visualiser to support peer- and self-assessment. By displaying examples of students’ work and asking them to discuss and refine first the example and then their own, immediate focus is given to improving work. Using approaches from our work with Shirley Clarke (2008), students became a support for one another, and those struggling with concepts in the classroom were easier to identify. Students throughout our classes now talk enthusiastically of how they can help each other improve their learning and use the 0-9 scale when discussing depth of understanding.
  • Hingepoint and other questioning strategies. Dylan Wiliam noted on Twitter (2013) that using the term formative assessment rather than ‘responsive teaching’, was a ‘big mistake’. We recognised that, all too often, written feedback comes too late and misconceptions are not addressed early enough. Through effective questioning, the teacher can quickly gather an understanding of where all students are in their learning and do something about it. In Embedded Formative Assessment (2011), Wiliam talks about the importance of hingepoint questions alongside ABCD cards, which students show to indicate their response to a question – a simple resource with a powerful impact. In a few minutes, misconceptions are gathered and those who are struggling can be grouped together to further structure their learning. Balance is updated there and then to inform the teacher that there is still work to be done in that area of learning.
  • Piles. Teachers look through students’ books and place them into three piles: those who have struggled, those who are okay and those who have shown a strong understanding. Balance is updated on a scale from 1-9. Those who are struggling are given 1-3 on the learning scale, those who are developing understanding get 4-9 and those who are secure get ‘objective locked’.

Balance gathers the information and generates simple charts showing clearly where understanding has been achieved, and most importantly, where gaps in learning still exist. Where understanding is not yet secure, a sliding scale of 0-9 demonstrates the depth of learning. During the time when students would have responded to written comments in their book, they are now given verbal feedback with the teacher and teaching assistant to move them forward in their learning. Additional tasks are provided for the rest of the group to secure or challenge.

  • Learning conferences and exit passes. After learning gaps have been identified, the teacher organises pockets of time through the day to sit with the students and discuss next steps. These are taken at the end of lessons and during appropriate activities. Understanding is gathered through information observations and ‘exit passes’, which students complete as they leave class to reveal their understanding. Again, Balance updates depth of learning for these students at the point of feedback.
  • Digital feedback approaches. Initial strategies provided video feedback to students instead of marking. The results were very exciting, with students responding with clarity and staff saving time from their usual marking marathon. Staff also used ‘Livescribe’ pens to provide verbal feedback for younger students, with similar results.

The Transforming Writing Project (National Literacy Trust, 2013) also shares strategies that are used in the classroom to ensure effective feedback takes place. The results are evident in the classrooms of St Bernard’s where a ‘talk for writing’ approach is becoming embedded.

Through making a policy decision not to mark, teachers are not faced with the hardwired approach that drives much of what happens in classrooms. The whole notion of embedding practices assumes that old habits must be broken (Wiliam, 2011) and this is certainly so for teachers and their drive to mark work. When we gave the permission to not mark, we had to ensure that feedback happened in a different way. As a result, classroom practice became the focus, and energy into ‘responsive teaching’ demonstrated much more impact.

Early indicators of project impact

  • Workload. Final outcomes from the research are not yet available; however, early observations would suggest significant results. In changing practices in Year 5, staff have recorded eight hours saved each week that were being spent on marking at home. Instead, staff tell us they have more time to plan lessons for the next day and even go to the cinema (on a school night!).
  • Learning. Evidence of improved learning within students’ written work was clear to see. This was found in their responses to feedback, the advancement of ideas to more complex activities, the increased confidence shown in work and fewer mistakes (spelling/grammar, etc.), compared with work previously marked by the same teacher. In other classes, this ‘clear learning’ was also more in evidence when verbal feedback and strategies (as above) were in use.
  • Effective teaching. As evidenced in student outcomes, teachers across the school have become far more confident and consistent in using formative assessment strategies in the classroom. When marking is taken away, feedback must take place at the point of delivery and this has brought the practice of all staff into close focus. Discussion through TLCs has ensured that barriers to effective practice are explored and removed. Staff are now able to talk with absolute confidence about gaps in and depth of learning for individual students and plan precisely for all students informed by Balance. Approaches such as SOLO (structure of observed learning outcomes) taxonomy have started to be used to support staff in this.
  • Leadership. In classes where there is no written marking, the evidence of progress is clearer. We concluded this was down to two factors, one being that, as a leadership team, we were no longer looking at a consistency of marking policy. This, it became clear, was too often a factor in the whole monitoring process, which took us away from the learning we were supposed to be looking for. When there was no written feedback, the learning (and lack of it if teaching had not been effective) was laid bare. We were also able to see extremely clearly where students had edited, corrected and improved their work as a result of the feedback they had received from the teacher (in the moment) and their peers. In comparison, previous written work was less clear and progress less evident.
  • Assessment integrity. With learning captured at the point of feedback, a view of what students can and cannot do is clear on simple visual charts. With 0-9 demonstrating depth of learning for any specific curriculum area, next steps are easily understood. While students use this to self-report, teachers quality-assure judgements recorded on Balance. They can then see easily where to move students on in their journey to deeper learning, linking the curriculum and assessment process with next steps and planning as recommended by the Commission on Assessment Without Levels (2015).


As leaders we are often constrained by past practice and concerns about the inspectorate. Too often, corralled by pressure, we put our head down and do what we’ve always done. In 2017 we have a golden opportunity. Ofsted is saying clearly that schools will only be judged on the effectiveness of their policy and not on any particular approach. As leaders we just need to lift our heads from the day-to-day routine, look at the research and do what’s best for our students and staff. We no longer have to be brave, just look at what impacts on learning and make it happen.

St Bernard’s has done this, seen students make great progress and found more time for staff to focus on what matters most. We will never go back to what we did before – we’ve found the right Balance and know that everyone will be better off for it.


Clarke S (2008) Active Learning Through Formative Assessment. London: Hodder Education.

Commission on Assessment without Levels (2015) Final Report. London: Department for Education.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017a) Feedback. Available at: (accessed 5 May 2017).

Education Endowment Foundation (2017b) Developing whole school assessment. Available at: (accessed 5 May 2017).

Elliott V, Baird J, Hopfenbeck TN, Ingram J, Thompson I, Usher N, Zantout M, Richardson J and Coleman R (2016) A Marked Improvement? A Review of the Evidence on Written Marking. Oxford: Education Endowment Foundation.

Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (2016) Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking: Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. London: Department for Education.

Kahneman D (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

National Association of Head Teachers (2016) Redressing the Balance. Available at: (accessed 21 August 2017).

National Literacy Trust (2013) Transforming writing: final evaluation report. Available at: (accessed 21 August 2017).

National Union of Teachers (2017) Workload driving young teachers out of the profession. Available at:
teachers-out-profession (accessed 19 June 2017).

Pembroke J (2015) Assessment Commission report: my top 5 points. In: School Data Updates. Available at: (accessed 5 August 2015).

Pembroke J (2016) Slave to the algorithm. In: School Data Updates. Available at: (accessed 3 February 2016).

Sealy C (2017) Confessions of a primary school headteacher. In: Third Space Learning. Available at: (accessed 20 June 2017).

Wiliam D (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Wiliam D (2013) Example of really big mistake. In: Twitter. Available at: (accessed 25 June 2017).

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