Conducting the lesson orchestra: a day in the life of a school timetabler
Like a footballer the night before a cup final or a lorry driver prior to a night of driving, a timetabler needs sleep before a day of timetabling .
But what one needs and what one gets are two very different things. Early attempts to get to sleep are pointless, as the mind is active thinking about strategy. Where to start? Who is the most important? Who will be easiest and most difficult to place? How did I make it fit last year? What mistakes did I make?
It’s gone midnight when a few notes have been made and the mind starts to switch off. It's at that point “the big lad" (my 6-month-old son) awakes for one of several possible reasons: teeth? Food? Stuck on his front? Cuddle? Or just because he wants to make the following day even more interesting for his dad?
So I arrive at work and there's a coffee awaiting for me as I sit at my desk. The prior groundwork has been done: several weeks spent on curriculum diagrams, staffing and costs, a creation of a new data set for 2015/16 and staffing and group changes.
Now it is all down to me. The headphones are donned, the playlist is prepared, the cover work is set and the school's MIS system is open. The eyes close and the heart rate slows. A large intake of oxygen and then it begins...
I start with maths and English in years 10 and 11, as they are the priority. I timetable them for the mornings: one of each per day. The full 180 pupils of each year group visit each department to allow for free setting. When Year 11 has maths, Year 10 has English and vice versa.
The remainder of the Year 11 and 10 timetable is logical. Option blocks are entered, followed by the Ebac subjects and the remainder of the ‘core’.
"It's not always rainbows and butterflies, it's compromise that moves us along," is the quote from Maroon 5 that springs to mind as I approach the end of entering lessons for Year 9. But after moving several blocks and individual lessons without changing staffing, it appears the compromise can wait. But I know it will come at some point.
I hear the bell through my headphones to signify that it is lunch time. I haven't moved from my desk for five hours. Experience tells me that I am ahead of schedule, so I take a break and grab some lunch before returning to my desk. I know that the last two year groups will be the most difficult.
Straight away, compromise is forced upon me. Year 8 timetables are planned with minor adjustments in staffing, which I know I will hear complaints about when the timetable is published. But I am confident that what I have done is in the best interests of school and performance.
Key Stage 3 subjects are set, based on English KS2 levels and baseline assessment, apart from in maths, science, technology and PE. This is to allow for appropriate challenge and different progress paths from different starting points. Setting based on English allows for a lot of free movement of classes in the lower school.
By 4pm, the timetable fits, albeit with some staffing compromises and a number of areas where there are more classes than rooms in that subject area.
I have questions: is it better to keep the groups where they are and the extra member of staff move rooms? Or should I compromise the timetable in maths to make sure a science teacher has all their classes in the same room? This is just the start of the post-draft analysis: the questions keep coming.
I realise it is time to call it a day as class events start to merge, the back and shoulders are stiff and it is now half past six. The timetable is far from complete, with room allocation yet to be completed and inclusion of PPA and line-management time sorted, but that is for another day.
I leave work to see my family, which is the highlight of my day. But as many ‘timetablers’ will know, the subconscious doesn’t switch off. I am satisfied with my work, though: timetabling may be a massive, time-consuming job but I have secretly enjoyed a day of doing something worthwhile for the school and pupils.