Talking Timetable: Prompts For Subject leaders

After years of writing the school timetable, I have handed the reigns to another colleague. Reflecting on my time as timetabler has made me realise how much I wish I knew back when I was a Head of Department. In my days as a HOD, I was a bit in awe of the school timetabler, wrongly imagining that they practised some sort of dark art beyond the realms of my understanding. This meant that I didn’t realise the talking points that would have been useful to discuss with the school timetabler – discussions that could open routes to better curriculum implementation.

In case it is useful for others, I have compiled some prompts to aid better discussions between HODS and timetablers.

Where should we place developing and early careers teachers?

Consider which areas of your curriculum have the most resources and related supporting materials. This might be the best place to request that your developing teachers are placed. The same goes for non-specialist teachers who might struggle to pick up areas of curriculum that aren’t yet fully resourced.

How can we align subject knowledge strengths with the curriculum?

Heads of department are likely to know more than the timetabler about the subject knowledge expertise of their team. They’ll also be able to request allocations to year groups so that subject knowledge is best aligned with the curriculum. For example, if an English department has a resident science fiction expert, it would be a shame if they aren’t allocated to teach the year group that study H G Wells.

Where are the gaps and who might be best placed to close them?

Some teachers may have a record of significant impact on pupils’ progress over the years. Deciding where they might be allocated could potentially address any progress gaps. HODS are more likely than the timetabler to understand where these gaps are and are best placed to decide about how teacher allocation as a strategy for addressing these.

How do we keep continuity to build on success?

If the evidence suggests that particular classes are making excellent progress with a specific teacher, the HOD is more likely to know about this than the timetabler. They may want to suggest the teacher continues with the class the following year. This may also be a behavioural support as much as a learning issue: the EEF Guidance Report for behaviour stresses the importance of knowing and understanding your pupils. That’s more easily achieved for our pupils with the consistency of a classroom teacher. Perhaps it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in that teaching pupils over several years can develop the relationships that improve teaching and learning.

When and how can we create fresh starts?

Just as the above scenario is sometimes true, the reverse is also possible. A HOD may know where some behaviour hotspots have emerged or whether a group has not made the progress hoped for. The Great Teaching Toolkit Evidence Review reminds us of the importance of realtionships in creating a supportive learning environment. Sometimes a HOD may wish to advise a timetabler when they see the opportunity for a change in teacher to relaunch routines.

How do we timetable split classes?

Timetablers sometimes know that the staffing of a subject will require split classes. Unless a Head of Department tells them otherwise, they may assume that any combination of teachers in any year group is ok. HODS will know more about their subject teacher and their curriculum and are likely to see the implications of any decisions. HODS might have views about which teachers might work well together in a split and with which classes. HODS might have thoughts about the curriculum of a given year group, and whether a split would help or hinder its delivery.  

Are double periods ever preferable?

Timetabling software usually assumes that we don’t want double periods, meaning that timetablers have to manually intervene to make them happen. They usually don’t. But why? A Head of Department might want to advise a timetabler if they can see benefits in some double periods. How well do year seven cope with racing from one brand new subject to another brand new subject every time the bell goes? Could doubles reduce this and help counter the notorious learning dip that evidence suggest happens at transition? Heads of department might also want to request doubles if they teach practical subjects for instance.  After all, is there anything more time pressured than a year seven cookery lesson?

Do you need a break or lunchtime buffer?

That time pressured year seven cookery lesson might be best taught with the margin for error that comes with being taught before a break or lunch. Timetablers are unlikely to prioritise aligning certain classes so that they finish as break time or lunch time begins. Yet Heads of Department might know when this can be really helpful for a variety reasons. Sometimes this is a simple as having those ‘missing homework’ conversations after the bell. HODS might advise timetablers about which classes they feel could benefit from this.

How can we timetable year seven to give them the strongest possible start?

Unless a school is significantly overstaffed (!) then the timetable is eventually solved by some endgame compromises. Too often, year seven might bear the brunt of this because HODS rarely advocate for them as strongly as other year groups. Once a timetabler has scheduled each HODS’ priorities for their exam groups, many will work backwards until eventually arriving at scheduling year seven with very little flexibility left. Much has been said about the challenges of year 6/7 transition and the potential ‘dip’ in progress. I sometimes think too little is discussed about the higher proportion of split classes, non-specialists and developing teachers that year seven can experience. Transitioning to secondary is upheaval enough in itself without picking up the most chaotic timetables in the school. In my opinion, year seven could do with more HODS advocating for the strongest possible start.

Setting or mixed ability?

The evidence for the setting is limited and worth exploring with your biases firmly parked to one side. If you have the luxury of choice as a HOD, perhaps don’t assume that setting should be made a priority over mixed ability. Setting can be tricky for the timetabler too so they are likely to welcome hearing from HODS who are open to the opportunities of mixed groupings. Of all the compromises we make, perhaps this is one to consider. With the right classroom approach, mixed ability might not even be a compromise at all.

Can’t the computer just do it?

Timetablers do a difficult and important job, but they won’t be replaced by a computer anytime soon. Somehow, they have to hold everybody’s preferences in balance and find the right compromises that meet the needs of our pupils and the curriculum. I have often been asked: ‘can’t a computer just do the timetable?’ but the reality is that the timetable is more than just a logic puzzle. I hope this blog has revealed some of the interesting choices a timetabler faces and the need for the input of interested HODS.

Like most things in Education, the timetable requires collaboration and good dialogue surrounding teaching, learning and curriculum.