# How do you get seven classes in six rooms?

6th September 2013 at 01:00
Producing a timetable is a juggling act that can give a principal sleepless nights. But get it wrong and it's a nightmare for everyone

Classroom schedules can make or break a teacher's year. Give even the hardiest of teachers a tough timetable - perhaps one that involves teaching German for four straight hours to the same class, or teaching in five classrooms each separated by several flights of stairs, or always taking the school's most challenging class on a Friday afternoon - and you will soon zap their enthusiasm. But no matter how hard you try, it is almost impossible to make a great timetable.

Class scheduling is a complex optimisation problem. Even mathematicians with sophisticated computer algorithms struggle to make everything fit neatly. This is because a timetable must put teachers and children into a finite number of rooms in such a way that each person is only ever in one room at one time, and each of the rooms is only ever in use by one group.

Where a teacher has only one class and they teach that group all of their subjects (as tends to be the case up to the age of 11), scheduling is reasonably straightforward. The difficulty arises when "subjects" are added to the mix.

In most secondary schools, schedulers must take into account the complexities above, plus the fact that students need a certain number of different lessons each week, and those can be provided only by a certain band of teachers. Mathematicians call this list of elements a tuple, and have used formulae derived from genetic engineering to create computer programs that can timetable optimally. Unfortunately, what a computer thinks is optimal does not always match what teachers think.

To a computer, if there are seven classrooms and eight teachers it makes sense to have seven teachers each in their own classroom and one moving around. For the lucky seven, this is perfect. For the eighth, it means running from room to room carrying a back-breaking melange of equipment, struggling to reach the next destination before students arrive. This difficulty is compounded by school expectations that teachers greet their class at the door and set immediate "starter" tasks. As one secondary teacher who taught in 17 rooms across a two-week timetable says: "It went badly. Exhausting. So I left after six months."

Even when teachers are given their own room, it may not be suitable. Examples include a modern language teacher given a woodwork shop and another asked to teach maths out of a drama studio. Even finding the rooms can be a challenge. One teacher recalls the year that the school's maintenance team renumbered classrooms but forgot to inform the scheduler, leading to students turning up to a computing class only to find that the location was now a cupboard.

### Resentments and anxieties

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