Class 3F? For three hours? First thing Monday?

As if organising a timetable was not bad enough, getting it wrong can turn into a disaster for teachers and pupils alike. Which is why a computer-based solution is best for everyone, says Gerald Haigh.

Nearly 30 years ago I experienced the limitations of manual timetabling. For a year, I found myself teaching a group of bottom-stream 14-year-olds for three 80-minute double periods (maths, English, history) every Monday. It was dreadful for the kids and a nightmare for me that started about lunchtime on Sunday.

In those days the timetable was built by hand and brain, perhaps with a huge board and coloured pegs, perhaps with a big sheet of paper, a sharp pencil and rubber.

Some teachers still choose to organise it like this. But the size of the manual task is its weakness and problems that appear at the end of the process can only be solved by major backtracking. Ian Repper, senior product consultant for RM Management Solutions and a former secondary head, says: "Every timetabler knows the feeling of waking up at three in the morning with the sudden realisation that something you've done doesn't work."

Some of these glitches - a teacher timetabled for a day she isn't working, for example - simply have to be rectified. This can be a huge job as moving a teacher and group sets up lots of ripples. Unsurprisingly, other problems may be left to stand because no one has the time or energy to tackle them.

Which is where the computer comes into its own. Incapable of tiredness and frustration it will happily remove all the pegs from the board and organise them into a different pattern - and it will do this in seconds, as many times as you like until it comes up with an answer you like. In any case, the software will prevent some of the problems occurring in the first place - it will refuse to put two classes in the same place at the same time, for example. As Keith Johnson, author of a book on timetabling and his Timetabler program puts it: "The computer is fast, it doesn't forget and it doesn't get bored."

What worries some expert timetablers is the idea that the computer is taking over. Timetabling is not just an administrative job: there are management decisions to be made and a need for deep understanding of the way the school and its people work together. The timetabler has to stay in control. Manufacturers of timetabling programs are adamant that they agree with this.

"I never want anyone to think we do it by computer alone," says Johnson. "It's a partnership between the computer on the desk and the one between your ears."

While the computer will not make basic scheduling errors, there are other things it cannot know. Repper explains: "You may know there is no way you want Mr Smith teaching the bottom group of Year 11 on a Friday afternoon. In the end you will never replace the intimate knowledge timetablers have of their own schools and staff."

So what's needed is a system that shows you what you've done and how you got there, then makes it easy to decide the next step. Usually, a program has an automatic option, which takes all data, stirs it up and produces a raw timetable as a starting point.

The key point is that using the software a timetabler can to go on producing these proto-timetables easily and early enough for teachers to be consulted at each stage. Ideally, no one will be left at the end of the process facing something they don't like, did not know about and cannot change.

Clive Stott, creator of the Nova-T program, says: "If a program's going to do it automatically, it's important you're presented with several different solutions so you can choose which is most satisfactory." At the end of the process the software should make it easy to produce different versions of the basic timetable - for the whole school, for each teacher and for each subject - all professionally presented and easy to understand.

David Clear, deputy head at Debenham Church of England High School in Suffolk, is one teacher who has taken the plunge into high-tech timetabling. For the first time, he is constructing next year's timetable using Didakt, a product recently launched by Erasmus. "I'm not computer mad," he says, "but I find this program easy to use. The graphics are good and it's easy to alter information and swap things around."

A big advantage of using the computer is that it lets you work in short bursts. "When I did it manually, it was difficult to walk away and keep what you were doing in your head. With the computer you can come back and see what you were doing," he explains.

Stott says this is boosted by a computer's ability to capture snapshots of development. "When you work manually, if you get down a route and it's not going to work, it's difficult to backtrack. With the computer you make backups and if necessary you can go back to a version you made before."

Many teachers make the mistake of thinking timetabling software is only useful when planning for the coming school year. Yet as its speciality is scheduling, a product can usually undertake other school scheduling jobs such as managing cover for absent teachers (allocating cover periods according to school policy) or sorting out GCSE options. Both of these are time consuming and problematic. More importantly, they can cause distress if badly done; for example, if a teacher loses too many free periods or a child cannot take the subjects she needs for a chosen career. Anyone buying software should ask about add-ons to process cover and option groups.

So where can heads and governors source software? One of the most convenient places to turn is the Internet. Graham Stafford, information and communications technology co-ordinator at Springwelldene, a small special school in Sunderland, looked at several company's products before opting for Ade by Adesoft. "I sat down at nine o'clock and did the timetable in two hours," he says. "It paid for itself that first time we used it and did a better timetable than we could have as we revised it easily when someone spotted a mistake. It has so many options that we haven't looked at yet, things like colour. I'm very pleased with the support I've had from Adesoft."

Stafford discovered Adesoft simply by typing "School Timetables" into an Internet search engine, which gave him lots of examples, including demonstration versions that could be downloaded and used.

Adesoft produces two other timetabling products: Ade Pro, which can plan annual timetables (as opposed to Ade's five-week limit) and can also manage the scheduling of resources, both human and materials; and Ade Pro Intranet, which provides up to two years' scheduling in a multi-user environment and can communicate with databases, manage serveral users simultaneously and distribute timetables over the Internet or intranet.

The long-established package in the sector, though, is Nova-T, from Capita. It comes with Capita's well-known SIMS management system but is also available separately from Capita. Major developments to Nova-T will emerge over the next couple of years.

Didakt is a newcomer to the market and manufacturers Erasmus claims it uses the latest technology to make the program powerful, inexpensive and easy to use. First impressions are good - it's worth a closer look.

Timetabler from Keith Johnson is linked with RM Management Solutions, which supplies the program with its modular management system. Johnson has also written a book Timetabling, (Stanley Thornes, pound;33) and although its sections on software are a little dated, its general principles are excellent.

Neil Jepson's gp-Untis 2000, of Timetabling Services UK, is also linked, this time with the Phoenix management system, which is popular in Scotland. Like Timetabler, it's an independent product with a good track record. Jepson will also provide timetables on a consultancy basis and offers training.

Ade: Price: pound;525 Ade Pro Price: pound;1,770 Ade Pro Internet Price: pound;5,900

Nova-T: Price: Contact your local SIM support team 01234 838080

Didakt Price: from pound;695

Timetabler Price: pound;645

gp-UNTIS 2000: Price: from pound;550

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