Keeping the grizzly bear at bay;Opinion

28th May 1999 at 01:00
I HAVE to consider myself lucky that the new timetable written into my diary has been negotiated and agreed on. No, I'm not claiming the Ab Fab effect or overflowing champagne, but I am talking about good old face to face interaction. The management system in a secondary school is accurately reflected in the way the timetabling exercise is handled.

According to the assistant head, who has responsibility for timetabling, the whole rigmarole has to be a team effort and it is a gradual process rather than one dramatic moment in time.

One of the things that made me tread water during this conversation was the reference to the 1,500 separate entries you might find on the master timetable of a large secondary. Our timetabler modestly played down his role but I know, from the tenor of our conversation, how the harmonising of the timetable requires a brain which works at a spanking rate.

What may appear as a perfect solution today may not be so in a month's time - staff leave, class membership is affected by unexpected exam results, etc, etc. It's vital, too, that pupils have a free choice of subject. In some schools they have to slot into "fixed-option columns", turning them into little pawns in a game of three-dimensional chess. To be more flexible requires considerable mental agility.

This capacity to look critically at such problems and to puzzle non-stop at the areas you think could be improved is extremely difficult to achieve. A crucial part of timetabling is talking to others. From what colleagues in other schools tell me, this is not commonplace. Yet with a deluge of management literature in bookshops, one would expect that senior management teams might sample theories on dealing with people.

Consider it. Principal teachers need to be consulted at an early stage in the planning so that special requests can be addressed - the home economics department may not want to be timetabled for creative cookery first thing on a Monday morning (no time to purchase fresh ingredients) or the chemistry department may plead not to have third-year Foundation science last thing on a Friday. How much consultation is necessary, school managers may balefully enquire? Answer: depends on how much mutual respect and trust you want in your school.

Apparently, some heads dot all the i's and cross all the t's. They don't even consult with principal teachers, never mind the plebs. Actually, I was consulted by our timetabler away back in January for this June's new timetable. More recently, both my principal teachers - for I have a foot in two camps - consulted me about the types of classes I would wish.

No apologies for overworking the term "consulted" in this context because if you are not consulted you will feel totally discouraged. Encouragement is of huge importance - on a scale of sticks and carrots there should be 10 carrots to every stick and the carrots should be large and obvious while the sticks should be small.

Too many sticks - and not being consulted about your timetable is a stick - reduces teachers to nothing more than "human resources". This reductionist management which views human beings in the same light as finance, buildings or technology is one which just knocks the fuel gauge to bottom. No wonder that people want to grind to a halt.

Effective timetabling can only happen when you have confidence in yourself and the systems you are using. If your school puts people first, and that means pupils and teachers, then the timetable will be built around the needs of people and not the other way round. I am reminded of a story I heard at a recent in-service course.

Two hillwalkers come face to face with a large grizzly bear in the Canadian mountains. One man whips off his hiking boots and pulls a pair of running shoes from his rucksack. "Are you crazy? We are about to be eaten by a grizzly bear and you are waiting to put on your running shoes. You can't outrun a grizzly," said his companion. "Oh", said the hillwalker, "it's not the bear I have to outrun."

Too many schools have grizzly bears for timetablers. It's no surprise that the teachers feel like running away before someone is eaten alive.

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