Nothing but a load of old coloured pegs

14th January 2000 at 00:00
James Simms recalls a clash of cultures between a new deputy and fierce old-timer.

More an art than a science, timetabling is one aspect of school life you rarely read about because, as a breed apart, school time-tablers never discuss their work. These are the chaps who begin the year as a jolly version of Jimmy Edwards and end up like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver.

With timetabling, you can only please some of the people some of the time, a fact that many timetablers learn the hard way. They also learn the importance of purdah once June arrives and to acquire a disarming grin at the beginning of September. By that stage, staff have already swallowed - but not forgotten - their hardest pills, such as the last lesson with the bottom set Year 11, four days a week. The timetabler needs leather skin as grudges can last for years. Of course, it is never anything personal on the timetabler's part, simply an exercise in reconciling large numbers of students with a small staff and limited rooms with a wide range of subjects.

Is there an easy way? Undoubtedly computer programs have made things easier, although a surprising number of schools still rely on more primitive methods. Whatever the system, back-up is essential. And, in our case, there is Robert.

Robert was our longest serving caretaker and there wasn't anything he would not do for the school. His only weakness was his temper and accompanying bad language. Normally deferential to a fault, if enraged Robert would burst into the headteacher's office without warning, regardless of who was there or what was happening, and breathlessly spill out his anger.

On one occasion, he simply said: "The blighters have taken the bog rolls again." Or this classic in front of the chief education officer: "They've been knocking on my windows at night and I want it stopped now."

Fortunately, the head would gently defuse Robert like an army bomb disposal expert deals cautiously but firmly witha five hundred pounder. "Come and tell us all about it."

Then came a new deputy responsible for timetabling. Computer programs for creating timetables were still being written and this deputy wanted to take the process a stage further than the traditional pencilled marks on tiny squares across several A3 sheets of paper. A huge perforated board of black holes appeared on his office wall, into which he began arranging coloured pegs in diverse and elaborate patterns.

During the spring and summer terms, every member of staff visited the deputy's office to discuss, negotiate and, after much soul searching, witness their birth and evolution in the grand coloured peg scheme of things.

Gradually next year's timetable began to take shape - a beautiful kaleidoscope of shapes and colours. And it was allegedly foolproof too because it was the result of "consultation all the way", with pegs representing "real people, real rooms and real classes". Under this system, double-booking and overlooking belonged to the past. Then Robert appeared.

The young deputy was proud of his four-month creation: definitely a work of art. I was quietly remembering the way his predecessor used to photocopy each draft of his pencilled A3 drafts when in burst Robert. "I'm getting tired of this, they've taken the bloody bottom off the sinks."

The young deputy may have been good at timetabling, but had little experience at dealing with an irate caretaker. "Well, get new ones."

"New ones? Are you joking?" shouted Robert and stormed off, giving the door an almighty slam. In slow motion, the wonderful kaleidoscope dropped on to the deputy's desk then belly-flopped forward, coloured pegs flying everywhere, and without a real copy anywhere on the planet.

As Robert said later: "I don't know what the bugger's getting all sweaty about. It's only a load of coloured pegs in a board."

James Simms is director of studies at Winton School, Bournemouth

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