How Can You Ensure Your Timetable is Responsive to the Evolving Needs of Your School?

by Iain Sinton

Has Your School Tapped into the Vast Potential Your Timetable Has to Offer to Accelerate Your School to the Next Level?

The positive impact your timetable can have on your school is something that is often underestimated. As well as being a fundamental aspect of your school’s organisational structure, a good timetable is extremely powerful and can support your school’s culture and vision. It can ensure resources and facilities are efficiently utilised, and curriculum and country-specific requirements are met, in addition to supporting effective teaching and learning.

What Type of Timetable Do You Want at Your School?

One that works is a good answer and one that most timetablers would say! At the very least, a timetable must fit the required amount of lessons along with teachers delivering them. After this, there are a number of desirables and priorities that your school may strive towards. 

How your school structures the timetable will depend on the size of your school, the type of curriculum followed, staffing models and facilities. It will also depend on how you want to deliver your curriculum. Will classes be set, taught in forms, split into half-year groups, or organised in any other number of ways? 

Do You Have (or Want) a Timetable That Offers Choices?

Are students able to have a choice regarding specific subjects or pathways they follow? Are Department Heads able to have a free choice regarding how staff are deployed? 

The more choices you have, the greater the number of variables which inevitably will bring uncertainty to your timetable and add more layers of complexities.

A model that tends to be easier to schedule, that ensures the curriculum and staffing remains fairly consistent, is one where subjects are often blocked into a schedule first and staff are allocated to fit around these, where fixed option blocks are used if students have a choice regarding the subjects they take. This format can work well for large schools, ensuring a working timetable that is easier to manage.  However, some schools may feel this type of timetable is too rigid.

A more fluid timetable that creates option blocks based on students’ choices and where staff are allocated to specific teaching groups before scheduling is significantly more challenging, nevertheless, there are many benefits this approach brings.

Having been a previous Head of Mathematics I found it incredibly valuable to allocate teachers to specific groups based on the needs of the students and the strengths of the staff and I strongly believe it has had a positive impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

Having bespoke option blocks based on what the students want to take has meant my school is able to adapt the timetable to fit changes in trends and support combinations of subjects for students that otherwise might not have been available.

This approach significantly increases the amount of planning and is more complex to schedule, however, I feel the benefits of this approach are worth the effort and challenges it brings. I appreciate this might not be the case for all schools as a timetable should be individualised to meet each school’s specific needs and priorities.

Do You Have a Vision for Your Timetable?

A danger to be wary of, especially in a new school, is that the timetable is reactive and evolves out of a specific set of circumstances at a particular moment in time. For example, a new school may decide on an initial curriculum and build around this lesson allocations for subjects based on the staffing or facilities available at that time. Once timetable decisions are made, they can become a fabric of the school and prove challenging to undo. 

Do take time to think about your school’s timetable philosophy, what is the vision for your timetable in 3 years’ time, what would you like it to look like and how will you get there?

Timetabling is Challenging, But Do Question Your Timetabler

As a school develops, the timetable can often be a barrier for change. The timetable is complex and intricately put together and changing one small aspect can have a large knock on effect elsewhere. Because of this it is easy to be complacent and want to maintain the status quo. Part of a timetabler’s role should be to continuously question whether there is a better way to structure the timetable. 

As a timetabler, I have a policy of being open-minded to any requests made, it would be very easy to give a quick no (even if my instincts say it will not work). In my view, most requests can be met, however, there will be inevitable consequences. It is then a case of making an informed decision based on what the priorities are, do the benefits of the change outweigh the potential negative impacts?

I often find investigating timetable requests, even if they ultimately cannot be met, gives me a greater insight into the inner workings of the timetable and can reveal hidden opportunities for improvement, in turn supporting the evolution and development of the school timetable. 

Plan and Then Plan Some More! Always Look Ahead to the Future

The bigger and more complex a school curriculum, the more of a priority it is to thoroughly plan beforehand to ensure the timetable has a chance of functioning successfully before scheduling begins.

Collaborating with all the stakeholders and making informed curriculum and staffing decisions early is key. A problem anticipated in December is significantly easier to manage than if the problem is discovered in May whilst the timetable is being written.

Whilst planning will inevitably focus on the upcoming school year, always ensure you have an eye on how decisions made today may potentially affect your timetable in the future.

Even a decision made in the best interests of students that will work in the short term can have undesirable ramifications long-term. An example might be a department that has teacher periods spare, meaning an extra group could be added to reduce the class sizes in Year 10, which makes perfect sense, giving the students a better experience. The question is, will the department be able to maintain this the following year? Should an extra group be required again in Year 10, can the department facilitate an extra group in both Year 10 and 11? Is it possible to undo this change after a year? There is not always an easy answer, but it is always important to consider the future when making timetable decisions.

Identify Your Key Constraints

A priority when planning is to ensure you are aware of your potential ‘sticking points’; the absolute fundamentals that, often, have to be the first elements scheduled if your timetable is to work. 

Facilities often dictate this. My school has a swimming facility and every Primary and Secondary student needs access to this once a week. For this to work the facility is in use almost every minute of every school day, this makes it an absolute priority and is the first thing scheduled when writing a new timetable.

Involve Your Timetabler in the Decision-making Process

Be mindful when making decisions without considering the workings of your timetable. I would recommend that your school timetabler is consulted and part of discussions on any decisions regarding the curriculum model, option blocks, staffing models, structure of the school day/week and facilities as they will be able to give an insight into how any potential developments may positively or negatively impact the timetable.

A fellow timetables school’s Head Office decided there was space to add an extra form into each KS3 year group ready for the next academic year. Whilst this looked fine on their spreadsheet the practicalities of the timetable were not considered. This created an odd number of form groups, causing a significant amount of disruption, resulting in non-specialists delivering lessons and previous subject rotations no longer being able to work. If the timetabler had been consulted they could have warned of the massive disruption this would cause and could have offered alternative, less disruptive ways to increase student intake.

Always Strive for Continuous Improvement

The timetable is vast and encompasses all areas of your school. What I have discussed barely scratches the surface of how a timetable can support your school to operate successfully.  Also unmentioned is a myriad of different approaches and strategies that can be used, decisions that need to be made and challenges that need to be met to complete this huge project year after year.

In my almost 15 years’ experience of writing and managing timetables, I have worked on many different types of projects, with varying constraints and challenges. I have always had the mindset that challenges are opportunities for development. 

Throughout the years I have also come to terms that the perfect timetable is unattainable. However, despite this, you should always aim to have a pro-active, inquisitive approach, be forward thinking and strive for continuous improvement to ensure your timetable continually evolves to meet the needs of your school.

Iain Sinton is the Director of Curriculum, Innovation&Timetabling, The British School Al Khubairat, Abu Dhabi.

To connect with Iain on LinkedIn, click here

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In next week’s Leading Your International School Principal’s Blog, Helen Caroline Bowen-High School and Middle School Principal, Tarabya British School, Istanbul, writes about ‘The Pursuit of Inspiring CPD: Empowered Educators – No Rocket Science Required

1 thought on “<strong>How Can You Ensure Your Timetable is Responsive to the Evolving Needs of Your School?</strong>”

  1. Hi Iain, I’ve learnt a lot from your kind sharing. I am impressed by your emphasis on continuous improvement and the need for proactive planning resonates strongly, highlighting the dynamic nature of timetabling and its ongoing impact on school operations. Your reflections provide a comprehensive framework for schools to leverage the potential of their timetables as a catalyst for growth and enhancement. Well done on sharing such a thorough analysis of this critical aspect of educational management!

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