23 May The Art of Timetabling: Principles and priorities
This is the crunch time for the legion of timetablers across the country – and for the teachers who wait to see what they come up with. As a former timetabler myself, I’d like to dedicate this post to my partners in crime, especially Matt who is working on the Highbury Grove timetable right now. We’ve come a long way from the days of pins and peg-boards but the basic principles are exactly the same as ever – we’re trying to match teachers to classes and teaching spaces in the most effective way possible so that students and teachers have a working week that gives us the best chance of delivering the curriculum that we’ve planned. It’s not rocket science but it’s a major challenge. The software helps in lots of amazing ways to visualise the multi-dimensional puzzle but it’s not as if you can press a button and get a beautiful solution – far from it. Even with great software, it’s a sophisticated process, blending technical puzzle-solving with an acute awareness of the human issues surrounding staff deployment and the implications for students’ experience of school. As we were discussing today, the mathematics of it is the easy part; it’s the human element that presents the challenge: not everyone can get what they want or sees the big picture when fighting their corner.
The reality is that you can’t make everything fit without making compromises. Good compromises need to be based on some principles and those need to be informed by the school ethos – the priorities for learning, the well-being of staff and students, professional development and so on. You can pretty much deliver anything with a timetable if it matters enough – but you can’t deliver everything. The challenge is to decide which things to sacrifice and which things to protect and sometimes, two choices are mutually exclusive – it’s one or the other because you can’t have both.
I actually love timetabling – it’s hugely rewarding to solve the giant puzzle and to present it to everyone. At BIS in Jakarta, I wrote the timetable for our 3-18 through-school for over 100 staff where teachers of MFL, Performing Arts and PE taught throughout the school. I remember the joys of trying to slot in Pre-School Swimming, which had very special requirements, alongside IB and KS4 option blocks where the secondary school had a two-week timetable but the primary division didn’t. Fun and games. Another time I made a mistake blocking out the non-working days for some key part-time staff and had to start again just after I thought I’d finished. Hours of work wasted – but I secretly relished the chance to do it again. The easiest timetable I ever had to write was for a new school with just Year 7. It took about an hour.
These are some of the considerations:
Beyond the simple maths of making sure you’ve got enough teachers to teach all the classes, you’ve got to allocate them in a way that makes sense and seems fair. People can get very precious about this because it determines their working world for a whole year. We’ve been taking time to make sure we’re giving people a spread of classes across key stages and sets. It’s always annoying when people think they ‘don’t do the little ones’ or when a Head of Department gives himself all the top sets. (I know examples of these things from different contexts.). No-one gets better at teaching A level or lower attaining Year 9 groups if they never actually do it – and no one class should be seen as less important than another. The difficulty with this process is the communication – it’s hard to share all the details with everyone until it’s all done. Ideally people should know roughly what to expect before the timetable is done and can’t be changed. Of course, a timetabler’s joy is a teacher who is happy to teach whatever is needed – no problem, no fuss.
One class, one teacher or split classes
Split classes cause problems because of the need for continual communication and/or the need to split the curriculum into sections. For students, the more teachers they have, the more fragmented their school week becomes and there is a limit. In my daughter’s first year of secondary school, they had gone setting crazy – as if that was the only thing that mattered. The only way to achieve the blocking needed for the setting had been to split lots of classes between two teachers; she had 17 different teachers per week: two teachers for most core subjects and, in one case, three teachers. After a re-setting process mid-year, she ended up with over 25 teachers in one school year. That’s timetabling gone wrong – where one set of theoretical priorities haven’t been mapped through to the experience of the students.
For me, splitting classes should be avoided wherever possible – but, of course, it’s inevitable and has to be managed. Sometimes its just a case of making loadings fair between two teachers; you can’t always get the quantum numbers of lessons per group to add up neatly and it can be uneven without a few splits.
Blocking and Setting
The more blocking you have, the fewer degrees of freedom you have to move things around. Large option blocks or setting blocks in core subjects quickly get locked in. It’s nice to have some single class, single teacher classes to slot in at the end. Of course, there can be very good reasons for wanting blocking – the trick is to recognise the trade-offs – ie that it means not everyone can teach groups they’d like and that there’s a bigger risk of needing to split classes. I’ve often found that you need to do the PE timetable first because you usually need every single teacher on at the same time for every year group and it quickly becomes impossible to achieve that once other things get in the way.
Part-time timetables are a huge constraint – when a teacher you really need can only work on certain days. However, part-time working is a vital part of a healthy school culture. Schools should be good family-friendly places to work and to bring up children or that allow people to step down to retirement; this is how you keep good people in the profession. At the same time, a part-time teacher shouldn’t necessarily call the shots on the days they can work because this can have an effect on lots of other people. It’s important to have a lexible but positive attitude.
A big bug-bear of teachers is when they have to move around a lot. This can be really difficult. Most new schools are designed on a principle of very high occupancy rates – around 95%, when teachers have a maximum 80% loading. There are always more teachers than rooms so moving around is inevitable. The question is – who moves and how often? Good rooming should give the greatest stability to the people who need it most. It also helps for rooms to be linked to departments to a degree; it’s amazing how tatty rooms become when no one feels it is theirs. On the other hand – gosh, do people become territorial about rooms! I’ve often tried to persuade people that every room belongs to everyone – it’s a hard sell!
Sometimes it is tempting to be happy just to have found a solution to the timetable. It works. But then you look more closely. John has three consecutive full days and then only one lesson on Thursday – that kind of thing. Or, the software has allocated all the History lessons in Week A and none in Week B. Or students have Art, PE, Music and DT all on one day. These things aren’t terminal they are the imperfections that don’t sit well. There are good timetables and bad timetables. The greatest art in timetabling is solving the puzzle in a way that gives a good flow to lessons for everyone. The acid test is looking down the staff list and checking whether you’re worried about what anyone will have to say. Usually you need to have a word with a few people to explain that you did your best but you know they’ve got something that isn’t ideal. It’s also usually the case that the problem needs to be really very big for you to face re-doing the thing all over again.
So – to timetablers everywhere. Good Luck!! Push that button.