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.


6 thoughts on “Is the timetabling ‘tail’ wagging the teaching ‘dog’?

  1. I think part of the problem is moving to computer systems to do the timetable – taking away from the skill of a trained senior teacher who knew the schools staff and their strengths. Now the data is added to the system, the button is pressed and out pops a timetable. Certain changes have made the job more difficult e.g. the increase in the number of part time staff in schools and the difficulty in recruiting certain subjects.

  2. I agree very much a lot of what you say. On your first point, the usual method in the UK is that the Head of Subject says who should teach each teaching-group, especially in Upper School, …though in Lower School they may just specify the number of groups.
    However there are some parts of the world (eg. states in Australia) where the norm is that the timetabling software is told about each teacher’s qualifications and what levels they can teach to …and then the computer chooses the teacher for each group while constructing the timetable! How awful.
    No consideration of the particular qualities of the Teacher in relation to a particular group (eg. whether they have taught the group at a younger age, or whether they got on well or badly with that particular group). Not even any consideration of whether it is “buggins turn” to have a top GCSE group.

  3. On your second main point, about “split-teaching”, there are occasions when split-teaching is a good thing. Eg. if you are teaching “Louis XIV” to an AS group while a colleague is teaching “the 1960s” to the same AS group, then the students benefit by having two History teachers with different styles and staff benefit by more people getting Sixth Form teaching experience.
    In lower school also, it can occasionally be better for the students – eg. an experienced and likable teacher splitting the teaching with a novice or an unlikable teacher *may* be better for the kids.
    But the key point is that split-teaching, if it occurs, should always have been planned & intended.
    Or, if it *has* to happen because of some impossiblity on the timetable that the timetabler cannot resolve, then it should have been discussed with the staff involved and other compromises considered as alternatives. It certainly shouldn’t just appear as a surprise when the timetable is published.
    Schools vary enormously in their attitude to non-planned split teaching – in some schools it is just accepted as “necessary” – in others the timetabler will spend ages to avoid it happening.

  4. On the commenst about using a computer : the key point here is that it is best for the school and for the students if the timetabler uses a *combination* of an electronic computer and “the computer between your ears”.
    The electronic computer is faster and can find solutions that the human timetabler cannot find in the time available – but only the human computer can judge whether the solutions are “good” or not.
    So it needs the combination of both, with the machine working Interactively with the human. Unfortunately there are schools where the timetabler just pushes the button and accepts the result.
    At root, the problem is that (in general) schools do not pay enough attention to the overall timetabling process.
    The timetable is the key engine that drives the school day by day for a whole year, yet many Heads treat its creation as virtually an admin job.
    And in many schools someone takes on this key role without any training!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to make those comments. I agree with all of them. I feel that the impact of the timetable on quality of teaching is not really considered in some schools. The problem is that when you try and question the reply is that other solutions aren’t possible. While that may well be true on an individual school basis it clearly isn’t for some/many that claim it. However, it makes it very hard to highlight the problem. I’m beginning to think the best way may be to highlight strongly just why split lessons are so harmful. As someone unused to their use I was genuinely horrified when I first found out how prevalent they are but people get used to anything. It seems so ironic that teachers are meant to sweat buckets to produce lessons that may in some tiny way improve learning while such a big impediment to good learning goes unquestioned.

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