Setting a place for everyone in the timetable is like solving a 3D puzzle. It takes ingenuity, but you'll never please them all, writes Sean McPartlin
Some folk are obsessed by it; others refuse to talk about it. Some do it on the kitchen table; to many, it's all magic. I refer to that most mystical of management responsibilities, making up the school timetable.
The timetable has a major influence on school life. While principal teachers have the wider vision of departmental arrangements, individual teachers tend to see the timetable as it affects them. A year with a non-contact period to start off on a Monday is to be treasured and the time you have fourth year personal and social education last thing on a Thursday afternoon will never be forgotten.
Within the management team, one member will have responsibility for putting the timetable together but other management colleagues will provide support. The headteacher will have made clear his own priorities and those of the school development plan.
A reality of the timetabling art is that it relies on sensitive human input and an experienced eye. For while computer software can reproduce any number of possibilities for any period on any day, what it can't do is ponder the advisability of giving Mrs Faint the fourth year Foundation class at the end of the day, or asking Mr Angryperson to introduce first years to the wonders of French.
To add to the complexities, Eric Jensen's research on brain-based learning (1996) suggests that pupils react more favourably to different disciplines at different times of the day.
Despite its mathematical appearance, a good timetabler employs his or her heart and experience at least as much as a slide rule. While its composition can be a lonely and solitary job, the information and prioritising that precedes filling in the squares is very much a team effort that should involve input from every area of the school curriculum.
A good timetabler starts off by asking and listening, which may well mean starting to think about next year's timetable before the end of the Christmas term.
Principal teachers and departments have to be consulted; national, local and school development plans need to be taken into account, inspired estimates need to be made about the level of resources andstaffing in the coming year, not to mention probable pupil roll and any curricular innovation or development.
The opening statement at any timetabler's in-service course is liable to be along the lines: "You can do anything you like with a timetable, but not necessarily all at the same time."
Prioritising holds the key to its final shape, but how exactly the timetabler prioritises may, at least in part, be beyond his or her control. There are obvious requirements across neighbourhood schools to allow for travelling to college or other secondaries for senior pupils; the vagaries of part-time or job-share availability will also have an influence; and for schools bereft of on-site physical education facilities, distance to the sports field and availability of coaches (of both types) may well drive the major part of the timetable.
There needs to be a flexibility within the timetable arrangements, reflecting possible staff departures or roll changes, not to mention the effect on senior classes of examination results. Many schools now move to their new timetable in June, allowing any glitches to be sorted out prior to the new session, but invariably adjustments have to be made.
For the timetabler, there is the inevitability of upsetting at least some of the staff in the process of attempting to please the rest.
One timetabler of my acquaintance referred to the timetable as a "three-dimensional crossword". For him the most important skills were listening to people's priorities, holding all the necessary information in his head at the same time and finding a reliable colleague with whom he could cross-check all the relevant parts as the timetable was printed up into its final shape.
He was clear, as are all timetablers, that it is not a task that can be completed within school; a length of time in seclusion is needed, free from interruptions and distractions, to process all the incoming information and place it into a coherent and workable timetable.
So before you complain about that class last thing on a Friday, remember the lonely timetabler at his or her kitchen table and peruse the paper carefully - that fourth year class from hell might well be a dab of brown sauce.
Sean McPartlin is assistant headteacher at St Margaret's Academy, Livingston