The art of the timetabler

20th June 1997 at 01:00
The timetabler used to be a figure of mystery and intrigue, who could understand the complexities of that scroll tucked secretively under his arm, as he scurried off to his hideout. He would emerge on the appointed day to deliver strange, elongated strips of paper to the expectant troops. His wisdom was rarely questioned, and even when it was, it made not a bit of difference.

But timetabling courses and the trend towards more open consultation have caused the timetabler's pedestal to wobble. "Half-blocking'' and "cross-setting'' have entered the language of the late 20th century school alongside rollerblades and the Spice Girls. The art of the timetabler is now the accommodation of an overcrowded curriculum within a stretched staffing allocation, to the satisfaction of an array of conflicting interests.

All subjects claim pre-eminence, and all need more time. The inspector himself said so, and children's educational development will be irreparably stunted unless all demands are met in full.

The woes of the timetabler are compounded by the fact that the Scottish secondary curriculum seems to have more to do with teachers' qualifications than pupils' needs. Children transfer from the integrated approach to learning, well established in primary school, to the fragmentation of secondary. There is little interest in breaking down subject barriers, since they bolster a departmental structure that has been entrenched since the Seventies .

English and maths can be left unscathed, with the proviso that literacy and numeracy need to percolate to other subject areas. It is also fair enough that pupils should know about the language and culture of other countries. But the rest of the secondary curriculum is in critical need of review.

The notion, for example, of pupils of 13 or 14 choosing between physics, chemistry and biology, when they have little concept of what these subjects involve, is questionable. All young people should learn about science and the physical world in which they live, and all could be offered a broad science course, with built-in options, until the age of 16.

The same is true of social sciences. There are elements of history, geography, modern studies and economics that everyone should encounter in a modern education. To abandon history at 14, because you are going to do geography, is bizarre. Instead of vying with each other for devotees, practitioners of the social studies could combine their historical and geographical powers to create a course that would help to ensure the future of our planet and freedom of our society.

As for music and drama, Riverdance would lose some of its appeal if it was disaggregated into an hour of dance, an hour of music and half-an-hour of drama. The performing arts could be presented in a more coherent way that reflects practice and reality.

These are just some of the ways in which the secondary curriculum could be rationalised. A more integrated approach of this kind would enable young people to transcend the artificial barriers. It might even allow the timetabler to break free of the shackles of too many subjects, minimum allocations and dubious claims.

The author is headteacher of Holy Rood High School, Edinburgh

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