An idea for using RAG marking


Having successfully used a ‘starter for 10’ peer-assessment scheme to boost essay-writing skills, Tim Matthews decided to combine it with the popular RAG marking approach

As a PE teacher of many years one area that I have traditionally struggled with was supporting students to be able to write high-quality extended essays for the A2 exam paper.

I always seemed to struggle with the ability to help students write concisely, using technical language and actually answer the question that was posed rather than the question they wish had been posed!

When I moved to my most recent school I was asked to support the writing of the extended essay element of the exam paper as part of an intervention process in the run up to the final exam. They had covered the content but lacked the skills to be able to use this content to produce high-quality, scoring essays.

While in the past I had been able to support students in grinding out essays until they reached an appropriate standard, this time I didn’t have time on my hands and I was forced to look elsewhere for a strategy.

I can’t actually remember how I came upon this idea (if it was yours then thanks!), but I ended up giving the students an exemplar essay from a past paper that I had carefully crafted to meet the lowest grading band.  

When writing it, I made sure that I made points using language that could be easily extended and developed to allow access to the higher grade bandings.  

I then gave the students the model answer, asked them to peer-assess it using the mark scheme (first working out the band and then the position in the band) and then use it as the basis (or starter for 10) of their own work

After the students’ essays were written I then marked the work with both a summative grade and a formative comment.

This was all we did, week-in, week-out for six weeks. Over time they knew the drill and grew to love it (again, my memory is hazy but I’m sure it was groans of joy when I introduced the new essay topic each week...). 

What I noticed was that very quickly the students developed a strong understanding of the requirements of essays in particular bands and then were able to construct an answer that met this criteria, irrespective of the content requirement of the question. I am pleased to say that all the students were able to achieve at least a band two mark in each essay that they wrote that year.

Upon reflection, I decided that it would be a better strategy to deploy this at various points throughout the year, rather than using it intensively at the end of the course. As such I have continued to use this method to achieve success consistently with different groups of students at different points in their individual learning journey.

The feedback that I have received is overwhelmingly positive, with students at all levels saying it helps them to decode the requirements of essay-writing and makes it easier for them to structure their written responses, ensuring they meet the demands of the question.

This was all working so well until this year, when I became aware via Twitter of the work of Kev Lister (@listerkev) on RAG 123 marking (#RAG123). RAG 123 is based around the concept of using colours (red, amber, green) to indicate our view of the effort made and numbers (1,2,3) to indicate accuracy/understanding shown.

I thought about the concept and trialled RAG marking with my year 7 group with promising results (I should point out that by now I had done the decent thing and, as all ageing PE teachers should, had hung up my boots, donned elbow patches and started teaching some humanities).

This led me to wonder about the possibility of combining RAG marking with my starter for 10 idea. The refined model looks something like this:

  • Provide a very basic answer (starter for 10 style).

  • The student then gives a band using an appropriate set of banding descriptors (taken from the mark scheme).

  • The student uses RAG marking to identify strengths and areas for development in the provided work.

  • Students then describe why the RAG marking has been applied, making appropriate improvement suggestions.

  • The teacher questions students to help refresh relevant knowledge and understanding.

  • Students annotate detail around the exemplar to build their own essay based on the outcome of the discussions.

  • Students then attempt their own essays under timed conditions.

  • Students peer-assess their essays against exemplars of different levels, placing their initial attempts in relation to exemplars to give a band.

  • Students self-mark essays.

  • Teacher completes RAG marking and returns work to students.

  • Students highlight key phrases to be used from exemplars and respond to teacher RAG marking.

  • DIRT (directed individual response time): write timed response using RAG responses and highlighted phrases.

  • Teacher completes final summative mark.

So far this year I have been pleased with the responses that I have received. Students seem to quickly develop complexity in their answers and a transferrable essay structure.

Although on the face of it this process seems time-consuming, the benefits across the duration of the course seem worth it as the students become efficient at working within this process. The need to revisit topics seems to be less as students have a deeper understanding of the requirements of the questions, so they often just need a quick recap of the content which can be easily achieved with regular, distributed practice.

 An important element to this is the removal of the starter for 10 prompt. A danger is that students become reliant on the initial prompt from the teacher and when this is unavailable struggle to produce a quality response. To counter this, over the course of the year I have been working on gradually removing the starter prompt.

The best way that I have found so far is to reduce the model answer to key sentences and then reduce it to key words and then reduce it again to just an essay title once students have a clear idea of the required structure and that they are comfortable with the content knowledge. All in all it seems to work! It isn’t anything revolutionary but the students seem to respond well and find it useful. I hope that if you use it you can make it work for your students too. Please do get in touch and let me know how it goes or if you have any suggestions or improvements.

  • Tim Matthews is deputy headteacher of Oriel High School in Crawley. You can contact him via or on Twitter @purplepedagogy

RAG marking CPD
There will be several teacher-led presentations about RAG marking at the #EducatEd2015 conference being held at Oriel High School on July 3. Other speakers at the inaugural EducatEd event will include David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, and Phillipa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education. Attendance costs £60. For more information, visit


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