As the title suggests, I’ve been spending most of the week working on the timetable. Well, apart from making sure public exams run smoothly, and the odd bit of teaching (a very small bit only – most of my classes are on study leave).
In a strange, masochistic sort of way I enjoy it (well, I must do – it isn’t even on my job description, but I’ve been working in partnership with the “official” timetabler for the last few years). It’s a puzzle to be solved, which is always appealing, And though it’s incredibly frustrating when you find that the programme hasn’t allocated both members of staff required for a class, so you have to demolish everything you built up (that happened on Tuesday afternoon – guess how late I stayed on Tuesday night?), it is satisfying when you sort it. Mind you, you would think that a computer programme would be able to search for a solution to make things fit far more easily than human beings, wouldn’t you? But it’s quite common that “computer says no” but we can figure out how to make things work.
The most problematic aspect can be trying to reconcile the conflicting requests of our colleagues. We have a lot of part-time staff, so we have to make sure they have specific days off and/or a reasonably arranged lesson pattern. Some subjects want everything to be single lessons, others want it all double lessons – tricky when both are in the same option block! Some people request such things as “lessons immediately before Recess or Lunch” (that’s when they want to run over if they can’t finish in time) or “we’d rather not have lessons at the end of the day” (well, surprise surprise, that applies to most of us). Of course we also have to take into account fitting subjects into appropriate rooms – at one point we thought it was all working, but we had 13 science classes running at once, trying to fit in only 9 labs!
Once we’ve sorted out something that actually works (we think) we then go back through to look for anything hideous, such as one class having all their French lessons last period. In other schools I’ve worked in, this hasn’t been a priority – I remember in one place being given a Year 10 class Wednesday periods 7 and 8, Thursday period 8 and Friday periods 7 and 8 (there were 8 periods in a day). Sometimes, we can’t avoid one class having something pretty nasty, if they have a lot of part-time staff – but we do try.
Then we try to give every full-time member of staff an early finish on one day. That can take a disproportionate amount of time, and occasionally after working for an entire morning to secure it for one person, we have to admit defeat and be mightily apologetic to the unfortunate person. Again, not a common approach in schools in general, but it is much appreciated – and in practice, it’s good for the school, because members of staff usually ensure medical appointments etc are in that free time, rather than needing cover. It also helps keep staff happy, of course!
After all that we give it out to people for them to check. That’s usually the signal for one or more people to come up and say “Oh, didn’t I tell you that…?” Another highlight is when someone who has put in 23 requests, 22 of which we have met, gets very grumpy about the one we haven’t managed. At which point we practice being very calm and patient, rather than succumbing to our inclination to scream, shout and turn the air blue!
I tend to feel that the exam boards don’t put similar effort into their timetables. Every year we get exam clashes of quite popular subjects – I can understand, for example, that Further Maths and Russian may not often be taken together – but is it really so odd to take Maths with RE, or Physics with French, or Spanish with Geography? One year, Maths and Economics A-levels clashed – that was a real classic! A number of our unfortunate Year 11 had a real exam day from hell on Friday: 1 hour of Latin, then 2 hrs 45 mins of Geography, then 2 hrs 15 mins of English Language, then 50 minutes of Spanish. Yuck! I did give those doing all four the option to be isolated overnight and come in on the Saturday morning to do the Spanish, but they elected to get it all over with. A number of them went out to celebrate afterwards – as did my two chief invigilators and I!