When I first began teaching, our timetabler was a senior colleague, much revered and rarely seen in the latter stages of the year as they spent many hours puzzling over intricate pinboard and peg arrangements.
When the timetable was finally issued and the “enquiries” from teachers about their schedules mounted, the colleague replied with the same quote from the Wizard of Oz: “I’m really a very good person, just a very bad wizard”.
The development of the timetable for a school is often shrouded in mystery and legend. The task has traditionally fallen to a lone deputy head, or sometimes a talented mathematics teacher who is given time release and/or stipend.
In reality, the road to revealing of the final timetable is paved throughout the academic year. Today, whilst powerful programming software supports the mathematical puzzle and construction, the true art of timetabling lies in understanding the human side, balancing the educational trifecta of “time, talent and turf”.
“The road to the final timetable is paved throughout the academic year.”
The real wizardry comes when there is alignment between teachers and available classrooms to provide an effective learning experience for students across a school week, term, and year. Done well, a timetable communicates the school ethos and curricular vision effectively. Arguably, it also makes a large contribution to student and staff wellbeing during an academic year.
Teachers and senior leaders often pay little attention to the “person behind the curtain” or the bigger picture of how a timetable is constructed. The art of timetabling involves making “good” compromises. Because of this, the solution is unlikely to make everyone happy, but it should serve the needs of the students, subject and school for the coming year.
School ethos and curricular vision and mission should be visible in the learning experience for students. In curricular terms, this means allocations of time given to subjects, and placement of this time across a school week. As a young Hhstory teacher in the late 1990s, I used to bristle when our senior management team would refer to so called “core” and “non-core” subjects: History falling into the latter camp.
Fast forward to today, and you will uncover the hidden messages about what is valued by looking at time allocations. Student attitudes (both positive and negative) and teacher habits are built lesson by lesson over an academic year. More time does not necessarily mean better.
“Done well, a timetable communicates the school ethos and curricular vision.”
One of the great benefits of the IB Diploma curricular model is the commitment to equity and concurrency of learning through equal allocation of time to all Standard-Level or Higher-Level subjects. This is communicated by the structure before a lesson has even been taught. A good timetable programme can help sequence the available time given to a subject, ensuring a good spread of a subject across a weekly cycle. That said, the programme needs to be told that not having mathematics or IB Diploma Theory of Knowledge last lesson every Friday is important.
Talent: can teach versus must teach
Deployment of talent will often default to historical practices. Take early career teachers for example. For many, their “rite of passage” is to find themselves allocated a lot of lower ability classes, whilst more senior colleagues are given examination classes.
A wise head of department will play to the collective strengths of the team, whilst also looking to improve the overall individual effectiveness of the teaching bench. This may mean rotating experienced teachers in and out of examination classes or putting themselves on a lower secondary teaching team. No teacher suddenly becomes ready to take on an examination class. There is great value to all by pairing a newer colleague with an old hand to co-teach an examination class. In addition, it is important to look at the needs of the coming academic year and the team in place rather than defaulting to the solution used in previous years.
In my own school, a key part of our recruitment and professional learning strategy is based around hiring teachers prepared to teach across the full range of secondary. Once hired, our professional growth and reflection process focuses on improvement of teaching in different phases of the school. Grade 6 students will later become IB Diploma Programme students, and enthusiasm harnessed and relationships formed in those years can pay dividends.
“No teacher suddenly becomes ready to take on an examination class.”
When asking heads of department about staff allocations, we use a sliding scale of preferences from “must teach” to “can teach”. Put simply, the more “can teach” options we have, the better for school timetabling.
“Must teach” preferences produce constraints.
These are worthwhile in the case of examination classes, when a teacher can roll up to complete a two-year examination course with the same group. Too many “must teach” will likely create split classes lower down. Again, split classes can work out well, if you have a team who understand why they have happened and are prepared to focus on the quality of the learning experience lesson by lesson.
Finally, we have turf. School “real estate” such as specialist spaces are fiercely guarded resources. From a timetabling point of view, the puzzle should begin by asking a simple question: are there enough rooms to teach the number of classes required? Only then, should we be adding further constraints of room sizes and specialist spaces.
Schools with increasing enrolments will reach a point where they transition from teachers having their own classrooms to working in multiple spaces. These growing pains are often felt most by teachers who have been at the school the longest. Timetable programmes can help to optimise classroom occupancy and limit the pain of movement for teachers and students. A good timetabler can also drill down with practical subjects such as science and ask if a laboratory is needed for every lesson.
“Timetable programmes can help to optimise classroom occupancy.”
Developing accurate room sets is key to turf management, but so is keeping an open mind to how spaces can be used both now and in the future. Having classroom spaces set up with equipment and technology that are standardised can also help with the reality of teaching in more than one classroom.
An understanding of the basic parameters of the timetable should be required professional learning for all senior leaders and heads of department. Those who are responsible for delivering curriculum need to understand the bigger picture and be part of developing the solution. This can be hard to achieve in a school where there is not a shared understanding of push and pull of the “three Ts”. Having heads of department work directly with the timetabler can be helpful in developing a set of “must haves”. However, it will inevitably fall to a senior leader to make the call on a good compromise.
“Having heads of department work directly with the timetabler can be helpful.”
Many schools now work with an outsourced timetable specialist, to build up an accurate “offshore” map of the curricular architecture of the school. This can protect a school from loss of institutional memory if a senior leader moves on. It can also be useful to have conversations with someone neutral who is not linked to the vested interests of time, talent, and turf.
- Does your timetable communicate the curricular vision and mission of the school clearly and effectively?
- What are the unintended consequences of any curricular changes you are wanting to make; how will these impact students and staff on a lesson, weekly and yearly basis?
- What is the lived experience of the constraints of the various resources for students and teachers?
- Who is making the final decisions related to time, talent, and turf?
This article first appeared in the latest edition of International School Magazine, out now.