10 tips for timetables that don't drive staff crazy

The school timetable can make or break a teacher's year - this leader offers his hard-won tips on getting them right

John Rutter

How to create a school timetable without upsetting your teachers

As a senior leader, writing a timetable is one of the most important things you will ever do. Get it right and positive teachers will enthuse their pupils, attainment will rise and you will be garlanded with praise and riches (or, at least, the occasional nod of thanks).

But if you get it wrong, you have a different future in store. You will pass classrooms full of despair, trying to avoid the withering glances of your colleagues.

How to create a school timetable that won't upset everyone

Here are 10 tips to avoid this fate:

1. Future proof your plans

Get your staffing allocations right from the start – find out (as subtly as possible) who’s retiring, who wants to increase their hours and who wants to decrease.

2. Make no promises to avoid disappointment

Be careful with part-timers – respect their wishes but don’t guarantee them. Accept all requests from your staff, but caveat it with the clear message that just because something has been requested, it doesn't mean it can be put in place.

3. Get curriculum and pastoral to work together

Collapsing classes and sets needs careful thought. Explaining that this has to be done to ensure everything is economically viable is not deemed an adequate excuse by those pastoral staff intimately involved with intense family relationships.

Plan time in for these middle leaders to meet and communicate as these decisions are made.

4. Find out non-negotiables early on

Find out about departmental demands and pester principal teachers until you get them. Your technology department will not be happy if they don’t get double periods. Maths won’t be very chuffed with exam classes all scheduled for last periods.

Everyone assumes you know everything and will look at you blankly when they find out you don’t.

5. Do a sense check

Before allocating classes, check, then check again, then check again to cut out any simple but costly errors.

It’s soul-destroying to construct a fully functioning timetable only to find that media have been put into rooms without computers, or PE in science classrooms.

6. Don't over-rely on technology

Yes, excellent timetabling software exists but remember that computers think English teachers won’t mind all five of their first-year classes being allocated to the last period every day.

Apply the human touch as well to spot silly clashes.

7. Speak to the middle leaders

When it’s all done, go back to departments again and again to see if you can make things (such as split classes) better for them.

Constructing a timetable based solely on staffing efficiency is relatively easy, but teaching to it isn’t.

8. Be willing to step in

Be flexible with your time and that of your fellow senior leadership team. If the only thing holding up completion is that rogue geography class then teach it yourself.

Staff will love it. Pupils, perhaps not.

9. Prepare for problems

Part of leadership is standing by your choices, and being ready to justify them. Therefore it's important that you prepare for the aftermath.

Timetable completion is only part of the job. Next comes the fiddling around when pupils want to change subjects and staffing changes at the last minute. Parents may be involved. You can’t sit back and relax just yet.

10. Don't expect fanfare

Finally, remember, no matter how much effort you’ve put in and how perfect it all looks, nobody will really ever be happy.

Expect no thanks but consider it a success if, after a couple of months, staff are still talking to you.

And one final tip for success: if at all possible, try to find somebody else to do the bloody thing for you. 

John Rutter is headteacher of Inverness High School

Timetabling Edval

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