A matter of time . . .

21st August 1998 at 01:00
As teachers get to grips with the shape of their new working week, Sean McPartlin pities the poor timetabler who is responsible for putting the grand plan together

ALTHOUGH never wanting to be a timetabler, it occurred to me that, as a manager, a knowledge of timetable construction would help give me a wider understanding of the delivery of the curriculum. The location of the course, at Discovery Point in Dundee, seemed apposite.

The timetable reflects not only national and local priorities, but also the approach of staff and management to educational provision. However, timetabling construction has always been a mystery to me as, reduced to the level of consumer, I nervously anticipate the slip of paper in late May which would outline the shape of my working week.

We looked nervously at each other that first morning: the keen, the cynical and the frankly terrified, eyes popping with concentration, sweat on the top lips, all of us told by our headteachers, "You're on a timetabling course next week, and I want our new timetable ready for the end of April!" Comfortingly, the course leaders were all seasoned professionals. With the minimum of jargon, they gave us exactly what we needed. We would be taken through each step in the process, being given tasks at each stage to assess for ourselves when we were ready to move on.

A school was created for us, and we had all the necessary information on staffing levels, roll, curriculum choice and departmental teaching staff. The rallying cry on the first day was: "Remember, with patience, you can get a timetable to do anything you want, but not necessarily all at the same time!" There was a palpable sense of relief as we got started. The type of information we were dealing with was already familiar to us, there didn't appear to be any fabulous mystery to it all - merely the need for full information, clear requirements and an awful lot of patience.

Gradually we became committed to the task, pondering in our newly-acquired language right the way through meal breaks, conflict matrices, weekly spreads and FTEs. It was, in the end, like a huge jigsaw. As long as you had all the pieces, and you were prepared to concentrate hard enough and for long enough, it was possible. As promised, my complete imbecility in things mathematical was not a serious hindrance.

By the end of the course we had our timetable around four fifths complete; the dragon of mystery had been slain, and we all hoped it was now just a question of dedication and flexibility in finishing it off. We had learned that the secret to effective timetabling lies in concise, two-way communication between timetabler and staff, a stage-by-stage template for the process, which we now had, and the time and space to carry all the necessary information in our heads for as long as it took to complete the exercise. An effective delivery to staff and pupils was also vital. The leaders looked forward to receiving our completed homework by the end of the month.

Like Scott, whose ship was anchored just yards away at Discovery Point, I feel I made it to the Pole, but rather spoiled the achievement by not making it back to camp. Sixteen fruitless hours during the first two days of the holidays only served to convince me that, despite being so far advanced, I would have to start the whole thing again if I were to fit in all the pieces, and successfully complete it.

Broken in spirit, I took to bed for two days with what seemed like the beginnings of ME. On my recovery, the unfinished monster was despatched to the spare bedroom, where its yellow sheets even now wave reproachfully at me when I go in to pick up my football kit.

It was a small relief to discover the same was true of a number of my fellow course members, who, like me, had buckled under the demands of everyday life. Maybe it would need the adrenalin provided by a real timetable lying on the desk for construction to drive us on to completion.

That said, I would highly recommend attendance at timetabling courses to school managers, even if they don't have ambitions in that direction themselves. It gives invaluable insight into the working of the curriculum, and the possibilities inherent in flexible and efficient timetabling. The discovery that it depends not on a secret formula but on good, old-fashioned, hard graft, will undoubtedly further increase your admiration for your present timetabler, whose skills provide such a vital input into the delivery of an effective, balanced and wide-ranging curriculum.

And will I be moving in that direction myself after my voyage to the City of Discovery? Not even if pulled by a whole pack of huskies!

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