In a recent contract review a leading headteacher of an large outstanding school said “never again will I allow my senior staff to be stuck in a room pouring over a timetable for weeks, I will always seek to use a skilled timetabler who builds a relationship with the school and we can rely on to deliver. My senior staff need to lead the team not operate software!”
So why are so many looking to outside experts to write timetables? What are the distinct benefits of contracting someone outside your organisation? As far as we can see these are some of the strongest benefits:
- Senior staff are not absent from action because they are stuck in a room pouring over a near unintelligible or unfamiliar software package.
- Leaders can concentrate on the leading issues not the technical delivery. They can focus on the issues that make a difference, population design, pedagogical matters and practice improvement.
- The most expensive staff in the school are not managing the operation of software, which is the only piece of software that we treat in this way.
- The school’s job becomes purpose and intent not creation and administration. Administration staff can be trained to take the major burden of this as well.
- Where current staff skill levels demand the purchase of additional software because the system you operate is unfamiliar to them so that you can operate only to the copy this into your system at a later date. It has been said to me where this is happening “We cannot sustain the time impact and cost.” Having a specialist who can use the software saves us money in the end.
With every benefit there comes risk, so what are the arguments against of contracting externally to produce my timetable?
- The level of provision you are buying is technical capable but not operationally aware. The operation of the resulting organisational frameworks are flawed and create restrictions in learner delivery and we can do nothing about them. Why not look for a contractor organisation that can bring leadership experience not just software ability.
- We are removing a rite-of-passage for leaders on the journey to headteacher positions – they really out to write a timetable! Or consider the leadership journey to concentrate on the curriculum leadership not the software operation as you would with an assessment or behaviour system.
- Timetables are now fluid things that change as circumstances demand- external writing diminishes the internal skill or the contract becomes a year long commitment. So build a lasting relationship with a team who will know your needs and has the capacity to step in when needed and train your administration staff to achieve the maintenance levels you require.
Over recent years I have heard all of these statements and many more. Two significant features to resolve will be the level of engagement and local knowledge and the cost and so is it still worth it?
The skills required to lead a school are interpersonal, strategic, communication and organisational. It is often found that these don’t necessarily include logistical and technical. Requiring a headteacher, deputy or assistant head to write a timetable requires the latter two skills in addition to a significant level of software based skill and knowledge.
Leading the curriculum is not writing the timetable. During the summer term where this usually occurs for many schools it is where the majority of appointment processes are undertaken. Juggling this important activity with logistical delivery is often more than challenging for people whose main responsibility is leading and securing relationship building.
The summer term is probably the busiest in relation to the curriculum starting with submission of grades to exam boards, undertaking the external exam season, undertaking internal exams sessions, preparing for the next academic year and beginning to consider the structure of the next curriculum cycle, and on top for this we ask staff to write a timetable. Quite often in the journey to headship, leadership teams rotate responsibility between the dimensions of school life. Those dimensions would be pastoral, academic, data monitoring, safeguarding. If this rotation is an annual event then it does provide an aspiring leader a breadth of experience but it doesn’t develop a depth of skill. Requiring a member of the leadership staff to acquire specialist software knowledge within this rotation brings challenges to the quality of outcome.
There are many reasons why school leaders think that the quality of the timetable is reduced by using external people to the organisation who don’t know the school, don’t know that staff and can’t hope to get the nuances of specific needs met. The level of skill required to operate what has become quite out of date software across the education system, may seem quite frustrating. People that access this only for a short period once a year do find the development of deeper skill levels hard to access. Running curriculum is not the same as writing a timetable. A great timetable will facilitate great curriculum delivery. A poor timetable will hinder great curriculum delivery.
We pay school senior leaders significantly more than classroom teaching staff to lead the school managing people, strategy and organisation yet we require them to operate a highly technical piece of software often locked away in quiet rooms or working from home to get a timetable completed by a specific deadline. How is this good value?
Our experience at CJ Learning is that there is much work to be done on designing populations of children, employing research validated methodology in organising the logistics of school a subject which is well understood or enacted across the system. Having the right children in the right classroom makes for a more effective school organisation investing time in this will reap significant benefit in developing teaching strategies and reducing workload issues. Working with an external provider to write a timetable can allow leaders to concentrate on this significant issue.
The amount of time that it takes a to create a timetable can be vastly reduced by employing experts who have knowledge and experience across a number of settings to bring you the next and best practise developed through experience and a wider view of the education system. It is not just a technical exercise it is a matter of sharing great practise with the right person.
The market for writing timetables has changed. The recent NESTA funded development programme looked for innovation and start-ups to develop new software so we have seen new organisations creating new systems, some online, to create timetable solutions.
As a timetabler of many years I am concerned about the principles from which some of these packages operate and I have significant concern that those that are writing these software packages are not responding to the leadership of schools within a modern education system. They are based on simplistic and often very constraining structures. In the leaderships of schools, population design and the principles of curriculum modelling must always support great teaching and learning capability. Any structure that limits this ability is flawed in it’s purpose and real understanding of how these differences can be achieved need to be reflected in the way that the software constructs the organisational frameworks.
That’s not to say that the long standing software is by any means perfect, I can be found frustrated over the poor development of this vital tool and its limiting practices as I write timetables every year. I have long held the view that the underdevelopment of operational software is a travesty within the education system My fear is that some of the newer tools are not up to the job or at least will drive schools into practices that are not fit for purpose in the modern education environment.
As we enter the term where curriculum models begin to be built and staffing profiles are considered for the new academic year, consider the possibility of looking to outsource the writing of your timetable.