Five Things I’ve Learnt From Creating The Timetable
By Sam Brown
Writing the timetable is a complex business. Here are five key takeaways for you to consider when writing the timetable for your own school.
I was quite good at Tetris when I was growing up, although my mum was even better. There’s an aspect of timetabling that is a bit like Tetris. You just have to fit the different shapes in or it will all fall apart, and you’ll get a metaphorical ‘Game Over’ as the school descends into chaos. It was a sunny June day two years ago when the headteacher asked me to pop into his office. “Everything ok?” was his first question. “Can you take on the timetable next year?” was his second. Having gone through the complete cycle once, here are five things I’ve learnt along the way, from my context in a London secondary school.
1. The timetable just has to work
I’d hit a (massive) problem; there was a subject that could only take place at the start of a day, but this hadn’t been communicated to me . I’d already spent a number of days building the timetable and had almost all year groups in. “But I’ll have to scrap it and start again!” I exclaimed to the headteacher, with a sense of doom. “I know. Sorry. But you need to.” he replied with a grimace. He was absolutely correct.
Ultimately, the timetable has to work and meet all the requirements. Perfectionism is normally a curse in teaching, whether it’s expecting perfect lessons or perfect pupil progress, but the timetable can’t contain any errors or a class will end up standing in a corridor without a room or teacher.
2. The timetable’s inflexibility
So get it done. But it’s really hard to do. “Isn’t there a computer program that does the timetable?” is a common question. And yes, most schools use software to help with this: it’s Nova T for us. But even the software struggles to cope. By the time I get to the final year groups (normally Key Stage 3) it takes a few minutes for the software to schedule the lessons. I remember one specific point when I was watching football in the evening while the software was trying thousands of options to schedule a Year 7 block of lessons. To be honest I forgot about it. After 27 minutes of trying it finally found a solution. But for the last few lessons it was stumped, and I had to manually move staff and subjects around in creative ways. It included things like split classes (which most teachers despise but are sometimes necessary) and teachers teaching a second subject.
When I took on the role I planned to check timetables and see if any teachers were teaching a full period day, then readjust the timetables to avoid this. What I found was that the timetable was so tight and so complex it was virtually impossible to do. I spent an hour trying to do it for one ECT and concluded that the only way to move them from an 8/8 to a 7 period day was to have a Biology teacher teaching Year 11 History (I didn’t take that approach).
3. The timetable and everything else
When I took on the role I admit I didn’t fully understand all the other things connected with the spinning Catherine Wheel that is the timetable.
Recruitment – I have regular meetings with the headteacher and finance manager about staffing for the following year. The timetable is so tight, and recruitment nationally so difficult, that we are constantly evaluating our timetabling needs. Occasionally we already have a significant surplus (or ‘slack’) in a department and don’t need to replace the person. Normally the solution is to find a direct replacement, but sometimes there just aren’t the candidates with required quality and we need to be creative. Recruiting SLT or heads of year that could teach any subject adds a whole new element to the supply and demand. “Give me a few minutes to run the numbers.” is my common response as another recruitment issue appears.
Staff wellbeing – I also oversee staff wellbeing and there is a definite overlap between the two. On a wet, miserable Tuesday afternoon in November, on the last period of the day, someone will be teaching Year 10 and it will be because I’ve put them there. The same goes for the cover timetable and certain duties. Timetables may make staff happy but can definitely make them miserable; I try my best to create the best timetable for staff as well as students.
Curriculum design – Sometimes HoDs have creative or ambitious ideas for their subject. Adding a new course at Key Stage 5, or changing the number of lessons students have in Year 8. Invariably these come to me as well as the deputy head who oversees quality of education, and we have to look at it from a whole school perspective. More often than not the answer will be no, but we try hard to work through every element and give it real consideration.
Daily logistics – (Naively) I thought the timetable would be wrapped up and on the MIS ready for September and then forgotten about for another few months while I got on with the rest of my jobs. This may be the role of some timetablers but in my school we keep a close oversight of areas such as room changes (being an inner-London school we are very tight for space, and events like exams cause a real headache), mid-year changes to students’ classes or any new students or staff joining. Realistically I deal with timetable issues most days of the week, with the support of the admin team.
Options process – Put simply, the timetable is about students being taught subjects by teachers in rooms. But for Year 10 and Year 12 you want the right students doing the right subjects. So as the timetabler I oversee the options process for Year 9, including the options evening, communication with parents and guidance meetings for students. With Sixth Form choices I work closely with the Head of Sixth Form.
MIS – Because the timetable is run through an MIS, I’ve morphed into one of the school’s informal MIS troubleshooters (I’m thinking of getting t-shirts). The registers not working on the first day of the Spring term was a fun example of this.
4. Good timetabling relies on good communication
When a staff member receives their timetable there shouldn’t be any huge shocks. My approach is to stay in constant communication with key staff during the process. As the timetable is being put together there are updates at SLT meetings so that all senior staff are aware of where we are up to and the current challenges.
When there are issues I meet with the HoD affected. Any teachers who may be needed to do something unusual, like teach outside their subject, are spoken to at the earliest opportunity. In a similar vein I give the final timetable to SLT to check over and provide feedback, then to HoDs to do the same before it gets to classroom teachers. We’re all part of this together – the timetable is not just for the timetabler.
Additionally, a focus for me last year was on explaining some of the timetabling process to HoDs and SLT. This came from a realisation that when I was a HoD no-one explained it to me and I had no idea about the complexity or limitations. So I put together a 15 minute video which included showing the HoDs the actual timetabling software and how difficult it was to move just one or two lessons around. In my experience this software has felt like confidential nuclear secrets that only one or two staff are allowed to see, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want middle leadership to see the challenges of the timetable. HoDs make some requests that are impossible and will always be impossible, but I don’t blame them because they haven’t had the timetable framework explained to them. Knowledge is power, and understanding the ‘why’ is important.
5. Timetabling can be lonely
The timetable is a bit of a mystery for a lot of teachers. They are constantly affected by it but they’re foggy on how it fits together. More than that, some actively keep a distance from timetabling; one senior colleague told me they’d rather resign than do the timetable.
This all makes it quite a lonely role, and added to this is the pressure of knowing that it must come together for September or it will get messy in a way that will be highly visible. The last week of the summer holiday was an anxious one. But I’m blessed to have a supportive headteacher and SLT colleagues who are both encouraging and actively push me to block out whole days in the summer term to work on the timetable.
The challenge and the satisfaction
Ultimately, the timetable is a challenge but there’s something strangely therapeutic about the moment the final set of lessons clicks into place, and once you’ve got through that first week’s cycle there’s a strange sense of pride that every student and every teacher in the building is following a timetable you built. The hours spent staring at the blocks on the screen are just about worth it.