What I’ve learned about timetabling

It is a long time since I wrote about something very practical, but this summer I’ve been looking back at my timetabling days.

I wrote my first timetable in 1995.  I had joined the school as the ‘timetabling deputy’ at Easter.  My predecessor didn’t even have a peg board: he had worked like an architect on an enormous piece of paper with pencils and rubbers.  I decided to learn about timetables and computers at the same time and got one-to-one support from the IT service provided in the local authority.  I learned on the predecessor of NovaT – it was called something like STS I think?  I learned about blocks and bands and rotations.  In that first year of timetabling it was just a big logistical problem.

I like logic problems and I like jigsaws.  I remember those summer evenings in the late 1990s as hugely satisfying.  I would have the window of my study (which doubled as our bedroom – still does actually!) wide open and I’d drink red wine and smoke and be absolutely engrossed in the minutiae of the timetable.  Oh – that feeling of satisfaction when it was done!  Sometimes I’d go to bed still thinking about a thorny problem and I’d wake up with a solution.  Fascinating how our brains work overnight!

As I watched how that first timetable worked and as I remodelled the curriculum during the year I became acutely aware that timetabling was a lot more than a logic problem and jigsaw.  I remember getting cross with the wonderful head I worked for twice: once when he implied that the timetable was an annual exercise and once when he said I shared too much detail too early with staff.  For me the timetable was becoming an on-going tool for developing the curriculum and the staff.

The first ever OFSTED I experienced was memorable for me in two comments the lead inspector made: the gratifying public one about the timetable being “particularly skilfully managed”, and the insightful private one to me of how she’d seen my timetable as a “damage limitation exercise”.  (She was right!)

In my first few years as a head I kept very close to the timetable. I had to as I was completely remodelling a turgid and inappropriate curriculum and training a deputy in how to compile and manage a timetable.  He was a musician and he became the best timetabler I ever worked with because he approached the task as if conducting an orchestra: he knew the overall effects we were searching for; he understood each instrument and its role in the overall composition; he was unafraid to change the tempo and melody throughout the piece and he kept everyone together.

The worst timetable I presided over was the first few weeks of opening the academy.  With few staff on the payroll before opening and most of the staff who were joining us being an unknown quantity, we had someone compile our timetable externally.  This was exacerbated by it being written on SIMS and transferred to CMIS which didn’t go well!  We worked late into the night in the those first few weeks in September 2006 handwriting student timetables.  Once it ‘worked’ I quickly realised it was a basket case anyway and we had it completely rewritten in-house.  On December 1st we introduced a completely new timetable.  That was just one example of the things that people said couldn’t be done, being done.  It was that or limp on with a timetable that was getting in the way of teaching and learning and successful behaviour management.

In a large school the timetable is not usually written by the head or senior staff these days.  Certainly my experience in later years of headship was that the curriculum was designed by me and the senior team and the timetable constructed by a combination of administrative and teaching staff.  I wouldn’t do that now.  It seemed sensible at the time, but it really wasn’t: I think in that model we end up with the ‘logistical fixers’ and the ‘artists’ compromising over how to best deliver the vision.  The curriculum vision is best delivered by those who own the vision.

Over my 15 years of headship / principalship I saw some really sensible decisions in moving certain tasks away from senior teaching staff, but timetabling wasn’t one of them.  There are too many tiny decisions involved in timetabling which have massive ramifications for curriculum vision, pedagogy and staff development.  As my friend @headguruteacher said in a recent blog – “you can do anything with the timetable; but you can’t do everything.”

The curriculum is our key product and the timetable is its delivery mechanism.  Why would we delegate this most important thing to a committee or to administrative staff?  That is a bit like delegating the content of a CPD package on pedagogy to the finance team, or the pastoral care arrangements to the site management team?  The timetable needs to be kept as close as possible to those who own the curriculum vision and it is they who should be making the compromises and the decisions which have such enormous ramifications.

I miss the curriculum and timetable.




About rosmcm1962

30 years in teaching. Experienced Headteacher, Principal, Executive Principal, CEO of Academy Trust and NLE. Now working independently in the sector.
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3 Responses to What I’ve learned about timetabling

  1. jaj says:

    Hi Ros,

    I’ve just come across your blog and really enjoyed the posts on timetabling, motherhood and church schools.
    I’ve been teaching for 14 years and going on to my first headship in September. It’s such a relief to read that things I think are obvious (but are the opposite of what is happening in my school) like the SLT must be responsible for writing the timetable are expressed so well by you – ‘The timetable needs to be kept as close as possible to those who own the curriculum vision and it is they who should be making the compromises and the decisions which have such enormous ramifications.’
    Love that!

  2. Ross says:

    Hi Ros,
    I’m still timetabling, what did I do wrong?

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