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.