Is the timetabling ‘tail’ wagging the teaching ‘dog’?

I met a teaching friend over the holiday and she told me that at her school the timetable writer has told Heads of Department that they can no longer say how they want their staff deployed . They are only allowed to say what definitely won’t work. So the HoD could say, ‘Tim can’t teach the Early Modern Period at A level’ but not, ‘John has left and I want Claire taking over her year 11 set’.

Perhaps this is normal at your school but I was horrified. Staff are all different with distinct personalities and as a HoD I want the freedom to deploy them effectively so that they teach well, play to their strengths and have maximum job satisfaction. It might cause the timetabler much more hassle and it is important to be gracious if he (in my case my own husband) comes back to me and explains a limitation that makes part of my preferences unworkable. However, to allow the timetabler too much free rein in dictating decisions can lead to the situation there was at a local school where pupils could not do French if they were in the top maths set! I’ve heard of schools where individual specialisms of the staff (e.g. which science they have a degree in) are not considered. The timetabler will use the simplest solution allowed to him or her but SLT need to stand in the gap thinking about the human level implications of moving coloured blobs on a timetabler’s screen.

I am concerned that often timetabling and the curriculum choices that go with them are made as if we are dealing with machines not people and I think this is well illustrated by the growing trend in the state sector towards splitting teaching sets between teachers. This is an unheard of practice in my sector. I would not dismiss all use of split sets. It may really be the least-worst option. It can be a constructive experience for colleagues working together and two part timers committed to making their job share work will go the extra mile. However, it is far from ideal for children to have many extra teachers. Children become more anonymous, and their individual needs cannot be so well met. Teachers have double the children to know and half the time to get to know them. Human beings gain satisfaction from forming relationships. Children enjoy being known and appreciated. Teachers want to get stuck in and mould their class. It is hard to teach well when you barely know the class and don’t see them much. There are also all inevitable challenges created by the need to communicate with the other teacher very regularly. This is pretty obvious stuff really.

Most schools claim they are most interested in teaching the individual or in the quality of teaching and learning. However, if they then make choices that allow the splitting sets to become rampant then they are not sincere. To give a teacher a timetable of split sets is to make them miserable and ties one hand behind their back as they try and get somewhere with their classes. It really should be viewed as a deplorable necessity in extremis NOT a standard solution.

The answer to my criticisms tends to be that masses of split sets OR lack of HoDs choice over staff deployment OR not allowing French for good mathematicians etc, are regrettable necessities.

Firstly, I am suspicious because I see what my husband is able to achieve. In some ways he definitely has more flexibility in the private sector because the teacher’s academic load (excludes all sport and activities all teachers also do) is 75%, not 85-90% and also because there is the money to allow some teachers to work a period or two less (35 minute periods) so there is slack in the system. However, it is not all as rosy as you might imagine. He does have to accommodate whatever GCSE , AS or A level combinations the students want and a myriad of other personal requests and slot in shed load of part timers. He hoovers up all the little pieces of information that mean he knows the implications of his choices for pupils and staff. That is because good timetabling must take account of the actual people involved. It is clear that some schools try much harder than others  (and I am not talking about private /state divide here) for example to avoid splitting sets. They realise that teachers are not just coloured blobs but can be much better teachers and happier individuals if deployed effectively.

However, although I suspect that too many schools do allow the timetable tail to wag the teaching dog I am not sure that is the biggest cause of poor timetabling choices. Many constraints are created by the curriculum model the school operates. The length of lessons and number of lessons in a week can make a big difference to the constraints placed upon the timetabler. I have written a blog ‘In Praise of Short Lessons’ and it is not a minor argument that they give timetablers flexibility so staff can be better deployed. For example, if you have 40 lessons in a week then with an 85% loading it is simply 34 lessons and it is much easier to allocate teachers unsplit sets with this model. As a history teacher it is odd for me that it all comes down to maths but it is imperative that the implications for effective/humane deployment of staff are properly considered when curriculum models are chosen.

Ultimately, many schools end up splitting teaching sets because it makes it possible to ensure all staff are teaching their full allocation of lessons. It comes down to money. I know little about school finances but I do know that the same problems used to exist before split sets became a common solution. Some number cruncher somewhere first made the decision that a financial saving could be made by splitting sets. They made a choice about their budget priorities. So I’m unconvinced that there is no choice in this especially when even now there is enormous variation in how much this practice is used. There are options but they depend upon school priorities that are decided at the very highest level.

Are outstanding lessons ‘often innovative’?

Have you ever produced a new teaching resource even though you have something that would do well enough in the file? Or conversely faced your class with that nagging guilt that you’ve been lazy and stuck with old materials? On the latter occasions my conviction fades as I deliver the lesson. I’ve even apologised to my class the odd time for my naff resource. When I know I have worked hard I have the confident conviction that I am a good teacher. Why? Because I work hard for my classes to give them my best.

I’m feeling smug because I’ve worked hard this summer, preparing a whole new module. I’ve been reading up on Elizabeth I ready to teach a new A2 coursework module in September. It has been twelve years since I taught the Early Modern period and one area I had to brush up on was the causes of religious tension. Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists all disagreed about the role of ‘works’ and whether good works were necessary to get to heaven. I’m beginning to think teachers are all Calvinists…

Followers of John Calvin believed that God decides in advance who will get to heaven (double predestination), it isn’t based on merit. You’d think that would lead to Calvinists being quite relaxed about their behaviour on earth as they have no control over their final destination – but not a bit of it. As ‘the elect’ were likely, among their other attributes, to be hard working, you could demonstrate that you were one of those chosen for heaven (or elect) by working hard in your life on earth.

I’m convinced we teachers try to demonstrate, not that we are chosen for salvation, but that we are good teachers, by working hard and making new stuff. We need to prove this to ourselves as much to others. I’m not saying we should all be lazy but, for example, we are very attached to the idea of innovation as a good. This is despite having the accumulated wisdom of teachers through the ages to date for us to draw upon. The current subject specific description of outstanding history teaching actually says, ‘lessons are exciting and often innovative’. To be outstanding you must be innovative…

Also as much as some teachers complain about needless bureaucracy there is also a tendency to feel virtuous about completing it.

I once had a department member that never made his own resources. If his colleagues didn’t provide him with a shiny new resource he would, without shame, use whatever pitiful half scrawled sheet was to hand. We were justifiably narked with him but he taught well and got good results. I often wonder whether, instead of making something new when faced with apparently imperfect resources, I used the preparation time to totally master the content, to really work through the mechanics of the lesson, to anticipate pupil responses and misconceptions and how I will build on those, I might be making better use of my time.

I return to work in the sure knowledge I am a good teacher because I have worked hard this summer and prepared something new. Imagine how exposed with my classes and guilty I would feel if I had been lazy and done no work over a summer. However, this new module is supplementary. There are good reasons to introduce it so I have no regrets but we weren’t forced to start teaching Elizabeth I this year. In other words I realised that I could have done NO WORK AT ALL this summer, carried on with a well resourced current module and all my pupils would have been just as well taught. It is just that I would FEEL different about myself as a teacher.

Innovations, new resources and fresh lesson plans are often a distraction and I wonder how often we can teach just as well or better without them.

Easy or hard?

I’d tend to agree with my colleagues that argue that history A level is a shade harder than politics – at least at AS but not at A2. In history at AS we train the students to write long, developed essays and that requires really quite good literacy skills to get off the starting blocks. The students comment on just how hard they find it all compared with their other options. They have to marshall extensive information to make really nuanced judgements. In politics at AS the writing is a tad less sustained, the structure required to get good marks a bit less sophisticated and students can get a long way by learning off tedious sets of arguments for and against a proposition complete with identikit ‘examples’, probably provided by the teacher for the purpose.

However, A level results are out and I am having my annual gut wrenching low as I raise my eyes to the heavens and cry out, ‘WHY, OH WHY?’ Why is it that I am having more success getting As from equivalent students in history sets than the politics ones? What is it making politics ‘harder’. This is a really important question because all new exams at A level and GCSE are meant to be ‘harder’ but what does that mean?

In politics there is just so much to learn, concepts are initially very unfamiliar and bafflingly abstract (sovereignty/constitutionalism) and so students get confused about stuff mature adults have gradually acquired as general knowledge. The range of questions that can be asked is much broader than tends to be the case for history and there are short questions on quite specific areas so ignorance on any one small area can lead to disaster. To be honest I am pretty convinced the marking is flawed (6 raw marks between an A and an E on the 25 mark essay doesn’t help that).

Certainly the fact that the answers are marked on how far they address a range of ‘analytical’ skills’ leads to unpredictability. The teacher often just doesn’t know quite what students will be expected to emphasise to get those analysis marks.
My husband teaches physics and would like the exam paper to contain more hard physics but agrees that doesn’t mean the papers are easy to get high marks on. The applications questions, while not containing so much good physics, are hard to prepare students for.

So sometimes ‘harder’ can actually be ‘easier’. You have to be really very well informed to spot the possible unintended consequences of changes to exams. The fact not so many people get an A or B etc doesn’t mean you have achieved what you intended and you might not be making the exam harder history or harder politics but doing something else.

For example we changed to IGCSE from AQA for history and got our first set of results last summer. There was a dramatic improvement in the grades of the students. It was odd when you consider that we teachers thought the IGCSE course was harder. Is a course ‘easier’ because the grade boundaries seem to have been set a bit low? Surely not. We also felt the IGCSE was definitely harder as a test of good grasp of history but also had far less tricky but fairly pointless technique than AQA, that was meant to be testing historical skills but actually acted like an IQ test (the same problem as with physics). So our new IGCSE was more teachable. Our teaching could have more of an impact on grades. So the course was harder history but we could help get students better grades. Hmm.

Which leads me to my final point which has been swirling around in my head for a while now. I’ve read that a fair test should test what has actually been taught – not knowledge/skills that students have acquired elsewhere. That is sensible but also fair and right or you will disadvantage those relying mostly on what they learn at school to gain qualifications. However, my IGCSE experience suggests to me that the more tests are focused around what you have learnt in class, rather than broader ‘skills’, the more control teachers have over outcomes, i.e. they can more actively help students towards higher grades.

I think I prefer the ‘harder’ history IGCSE and AS but in practice those exams might be easier to pass.