Secondary school timetabling involves the complex process of matching resources (teachers and rooms) with a group of students at a specific time. Get it wrong and you’d have to ask a teacher to clone themselves to cover two classes at once or have children roaming the halls with nothing to do. Timetablers never let it get that far but schools often end up with less than optimal timetables using split-classes or students being taught by an undesirably high number of teachers each week. It is such a difficult problem that schools are generally reluctant to experiment with new structures; it is easier to tweak last year’s timetable that worked.
Why is it so hard to schedule the right teacher with the right class?
The number of hours a teacher is available rarely matches the requirement for a specific subject. Often a teacher is found to have a few residual hours left over once they have been allocated to their main classes. For example a teacher with 22 hours of available teaching time might be allocated to 20 hours of KS3 maths. What should be done with the remaining 2 hours? This problem becomes more acute for teachers reduced teaching loads such as middle or senior leaders or part-time staff.
Certain teachers might be required to teach specific subjects or elements of a course reducing their availability for other classes. For example there may be a limited number of teachers able to teach an A-level.
Increasingly teachers are encouraged to teach more than one subject: the business studies teacher is also used to teach PE. This increases the complexity of the scheduling problem.
Teachers might not be available at certain times, this is usually the case for teachers who work part-time.
Some classes might require certain teachers at specific times. For example a PE teacher using local sports hall.
Schools often like to distribute their teachers across the year groups. This means scheduling need to be considered both horizontally and vertically.
Some schools choose to have a specific group of teachers all teaching at the same time. This is usually the case for Project Based Learning or subjects that are set to facilitate easy movement of students between sets.
Faculties/departments may request that a specific teacher teaches a specific group of students
Solutions to consider
Clarify the school’s priorities. The more requirements a school places on a timetable the less flexible it will be. It is useful to have open discussions with all of the key stakeholders and establish which requirements are high priority and which could be relaxed if necessary. For example the English department might prefer teachers to teach all year groups but this would contradict a desire for a tight teaching team in KS3.
At the start of the timetabling process it is useful to Identify key constraints in order to understand the pinch points. This might be the teacher with the fewest available hours or those whose hours must be allocated to a specific course.
Many schools define their curriculum model and then ask Heads of Department to allocate teachers to classes before entering the information into a timetabling optimisation package. All of the most popular timetabling packages are based on the standard block timetabling approach. It is sensible to provide Middle Leaders with introductory training into this approach so that they are sensitive to the requirements of the block method when allocating teachers.
Restricting groups/teams of teachers to specific year groups can help to break the timetable down into smaller more manageable units that can be scheduled independently.
For complex situations like year 12 & 13 options it can be beneficial to flip the process round, scheduling the classes and rooms first, leaving it up to the Heads of Department to determine which teacher is allocated to which class once the timings have been determined. This approach can be beneficial for complex situations like year 12 & 13 options but does transfer considerable workload to Heads of Department and there is still a risk that there isn’t a feasible solution.