I have just completed my first ever secondary school timetable. It has been a huge learning curve and I have decided to write a bit about it to help anyone who might find themselves in the same position as I was back last December.
When a colleague left at short notice and I took on acting head of teaching and learning secondary, the timetable came as part of my remit. I had never been involved in timetabling before but had attended a two day course on the principles of secondary timetabling back in 2015 and still had the useful notes, folder and certificate.
The most important part of that course was that it provided me with the following image:
There is a school’s worth of pupils standing in the school playground. Every teaching period of the day, they all have to be grouped in a slightly different configuration to attend a class with a teacher in a room. The timetable is the organisational structure that allows for this.
When timetabling, you must ensure that every pupil is catered for and that no teacher or room is doubled up.
(There are computer programmes that help with the whole of this process and can make it a simple task. If you can afford one that has good reviews, it may be worth it. But I was not able to purchase one for the whole process and so I and going to describe the process that I went through. I know colleagues who have timetabled for years and still prefer to work with paper and pen and in their head rather than using a programme.)
In late March, I attended a course with SEEMIS on how to use the two parts of SEEMIS (COS and SETTS) that can assist with timetabling. It was useful but I left it with major anxiety as I felt that I had lots of unanswered questions and that there was not a huge connection between the SEEMIS training and the two day course I had done previously….
However, a simple image that I created to help me was to imagine that COS and SETTS (SEEMIS Extended Timetabling Toolkit System) are two tables. On the COS table, you have lists of all of your pupils and their option choices as well as a framework showing option columns and numbers of sections (classes) in each year group. Here you can also move pupils into the correct sections (classes) and create class lists.
In SETTS you have a similar framework but also information about staffing and rooms.
Neither table does the actual process of creating the overall timetable (schematic or chronological – see below) for you.
You have to do this yourself, sitting at a third table between the two with a range of pieces of paper, coloured pens and pencils, tippex mice and endless cups of coffee).
Starting with the seniors
Pupils in the senior school will follow a programme of study based on options or choices.
Obviously the numbers of pupils opting for courses each year will vary and so no one year’s timetable will suit the following year’s cohort exactly. In my school, we had options forms that had worked ok the year before with very similar staffing and accommodation and so I decided to use them again as a starting point this year, given that there have been no significant changes to curriculum, staffing or rooms for the next session. We did draft option choice runs in January and February with all of our 3rd, 4th and 5th year pupils and made a couple of tweaks – for example moving a science subject from one column to another in fourth year so that more pupils could take it.
The option forms I adopted had a clear indication of class sizes (practical classes max at 20, others at 30).
When you have an option form, you know that each column represents all pupils in a cohort being in one of the choices listed and dividing into groups to go to their classes (also referred to as sections) in the column at one time (think the playground image on a smaller scale). At this point it does not matter that each column might have a different number of periods assigned to it than to the other columns.
Once we had run a final options exercise in March, I entered all the data into our information management system called SEEMIS in the section called Next Session COS (Curricular Option Structure). Here you can pull across all the names of pupils currently on roll and enter their option choices into a structure that mirrors your option columns.
My next step was to block together the columns for the three years who had made option choices. You have to do this so that the combinations work in terms of staff and rooms. For example if your fifth year column A has science but so do your 4th and 3rd year column As, it is unlikely to work because you will run out of science teachers and labs.
In SEEMIS, there is a way of working out which combinations of senior school options will work together. You have to enter your options structure into the SETTS part of the system and specify the number of classes in each subject in each column. You then have to enter your staffing information very carefully: who can teach what and for how many periods. The more staff you have who are able to teach more than one subject, the better here.
(For the record, an FTE teacher in Scotland teaches 22.5 hours maximum a week which I my school is around 26 periods; our period lengths vary. A head of department teaches around 23 and a pastoral head teaches around 19. It is very important to record this accurately at this stage).
In SETTS you first run pairs. This is the option combinations that will work for your upper two years in terms of staffing and rooms at any one time (in any one period).
You then need to decide which of these will allow you tick off all of the numbers of periods required in each column. For example, you need to use your 5th year column A six times because a Higher course gets six periods a week and your 4th year column A four times because a National 4 course gets four periods a week.. …etc etc.
Following the identification of 33 pairs (we have a 33 period week) that would allow all the necessary periods for each course in each column to be accommodated, you then run SEEMIS to show compatible Triples; this is the option combinations that will work in terms of staffing and rooms for your upper three years at any time.
You then identify 33 Triples that will allow the necessary periods for each course in each column to be accommodated.
You should repeat triple use within the 33 as much as possible as this is less likely to result in split classes.
This is where I needed help and drove to Dunoon to get some amazing support from a very experienced timetabler. I have to confess that the magic he worked is still a slight mystery to me but involved poring over combination charts as these and resulted in me being able to identify what is referred to as the SCHEMATIC; the series of Triples that allows each of the senior year groups to have their option subjects staffed and roomed within your 33 period (or whatever) week.
After this, you need to rearrange the 33 parts of the SCHEMATIC into your CHRONOLOGICAL timetable for the upper school.
This is the arranging of the individual period blocks into the days of the week and the periods for each day. When you do this you want a good spread and balance across the week.
Then comes the part where you need to see what the CHRONOLOGICAL timetable actually looks like in terms of subjects. My Heath Robinson approach to this was to create a colourful paper skirt which I pored over analysed and rearranged until it seemed to work.
The next step was to take the senior school chronological and transpose it onto a master timetable with days and periods along the top and staff down the side.
There had to be two halves to this: one showing the departments where subjects are taught lower down the school in practical classes of twenty and the other showing those taught in larger classes.
Moving on the the juniors
Once the upper school classes had been scheduled, it was time to add in the first and second year classes.
This was like doing a jigsaw puzzle or suduko of matching and checking and trying to find solutions.
The trick is to constantly keep the idea of a particular group or cohort of pupils needing to be accounted for in every period of the day, ensuring at the same time that each class gets allocated its full range of subjects.
So, let’s say that second year need 4 periods of maths across the week and that they are taught in four classes. You need to find 4 periods in the week where there are 4 maths teachers available (i.e. not tied up with third, fourth or fifth year.) Then, from those available, you need to select those periods which will give a good spread across the week and allow as much maths to be taught in the morning as possible.
Once second year are in, first year maths needs to be added.. etc, etc.
Maths is fairly straightforward but with other subjects the matching is trickier.
For practical classes in first and second year, there are five classes. At any one time, the five classes must be in a practical class (PQRST) – so one or more could be in art, technical studies, home economics etc etc.
The same applies when the year group is doing a non practical class and must be divided into three classes (1,2,3) across subjects like PE, RE, History, French….
This part took me a long time. It helped to colour code the classes and have a grid to tick once a class had been assigned.
Here it is really useful to be able to remember which teachers may be able to teach out of subject or deliver an odd period of PSE/RE/Study skills.
I had a period of about 12 hours scratching my head over a seemingly impossible French situation…. until I remembered that I can teach French.
After you have done this part, you enter it into SEEMIS in the SETTS section in SETTS: this can be done by option column or by individual class and you can get COS and SETTS to talk to one another so that class information is pulled through and individual pupil and staff timetables can be created and printed. This will also link to the Click and Go part of SEEMIS so that once the new timetable starts, staff will get the correct electronic registers.
Your new timetable will stay in NEXT SESSION until a period in the summer called turnaround. This means that you can start using it before turnaround (this is called rollover) and you just need to enter the date for this into the correct part of COS about a week before you plan to roll.
Between rollover and turnaround, you may refer to pupils in their new year group (ie S1 become S2) but in SEEMIS they do not officially move up until Turnaround.
There are good manuals to go with SEEMIS timetabling but they are not always easy to read if you are new to them; they assume a basic understanding of the process and terminology.
Once all the timetable has been entered into SETTS, the information from COS is merged and analysed and will flag up any conflicts or clashes.
Then, you are in a position to see and print individual pupil and staff timetables.
Unfortunately, it is only at this point that you can see what an individual pupil’s day and subject combination looks like so it is worth trying to get to this point early enough to be able to do some re-jigging if needed. Only when
I printed my own daughter’s timetable, for example, did I see that she has three science subjects in a row on a Tuesday due to the options she chose…..
Never, however, can you get the overview of your entire school timetable in SEEMIS, however, so you must ensure that you keep a tight control over and correlation between any changes made in your spreadsheet and SEEMIS.
Tomorrow we roll.
If it has worked, I will be very happy.
If not, there will be another chapter below entitled “learning from an I successful timetabling experience”.
Timetabling has been a hugely challenging experience for me. The challenges have been both positive and negative. On the positive side I have learnt an incredible amount about curriculum, staffing and the philosophy and technicality of timetabling.
On the negative side, I have suffered huge anxiety and been up against it in terms of time.
Everyone says that the timetabler needs to start early, be part of a team and be away from school for a good week (preferably in a quiet hotel room) to do the technical parts of the schematic and chronological timetable.
I faced challenges in respect of all of these.
There were massive highs and lows (the latter mainly when you find an insoluble problem and have to work back and unpick, over and over).
I am not even going to talk about the tears, swearing, lost nights, weekends and holidays since Christmas.
But some of that is my own fault. Once I have a project or problem in my head, it eats away at me and runs in the background until it is solved and the timetable was one big problem that needed solving and have my brain very little rest. Some reflections on all of that here:
Next year I will work differently, if I am still in my current post.
But this year will all have been worth it, if tomorrow:
- Teachers and pupils are all in the right places at the right time
- The timetable allows for efficient and effective use of staffing to support the best in teaching and learning
- The timetable supports flexible curriculum delivery and personalisation and choice
- The pupils and staff in school are happy, healthy and doing the best they can.
Ready for tomorrow: