The cost of timetabling - Education Matters Magazine
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The cost of timetabling

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What is the cost of your timetable? A simple question perhaps – but the answer is complex. When asked, most schools immediately think of either the cost of timetabling software, or else the cost in staff time and expense in performing the task of ‘doing’ the timetable. This is a very common but large misconception.

The true cost of timetabling is the solution. The cost of RUNNING your timetable is far more important than the cost of constructing it. The school must pay for their timetable every single day of the year, with the costs being many millions of dollars. What many schools misunderstand is that the running cost of a timetable is not a fixed quantity and can vary wildly based on the quality of the solution and how well trained the staff are that manage the ongoing timetable. Many think timetable running costs are largely fixed and known, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Timetable structures

Optimisations can be made in the structure of a timetable by setting the number of core classes, or how core and (smaller) prac classes merge together. Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may well cut your costs by thousands. Do you need to build that extra science lab? Or instead just change your curriculum structures to improve occupancy rates on your existing lab rooms and other resources, at no extra cost?

Which elective classes should run?

Many schools are unaware of the huge impact that determining classes to run has on their bottom line, as well as educational aims. If enough students ask for a subject, it will usually run, but this is far from best practice and costs schools thousands, as well as affecting students’ educational opportunities.

What matters more is the preferential weight of students who can be granted these subjects, together with the likelihood they will actually complete the subject. If 15 students want Art, and 12 want Biology, and you had to cut one of these classes – which should go? If the group of 12 was much keener on Biology than the 15 are for Art, would this matter? What if five of the Biology group were suspected to leave next year anyway, and others in this same group were poor academic students? What if line structures were unable to grant any more than say 10 out of the 15 requests for Art? Would you still run Biology over Art?

Collapse classes

All schools know they can run two classes on a line so they can easily collapse to one class if numbers drop later in the year. But it is not ideal to run both classes in one line, as it reduces access to choice. Clever timetablers and clever software tools allow collapsing of classes ‘across lines’. This can be achieved in several ways, such as swapping students through subjects they take in other lines where there is more than one class of that subject, or by adjusting the lines themselves. So few know this is even an option yet it may just be a few clicks away given the right tools. How much could this save your school?

Save money on casual teachers

There are many ways to significantly reduce the expense of casual teachers with clever timetabling tools, and the right experience. Some clever cover systems support automatic covers of classes, as a good start point for smaller manual adjustments, and can ensure casual staff are utilised more efficiently. Active system prompting of on-call staff or available internal staff also helps schools cap their casual staff expense, as it is easier – or even automatic – to make best use of staff which don’t cost any more money. On-call rosters which are constructed efficiently will promote equity in subsequent allocations, as well as faculty diversity. This approach encourages better educational matching of covers to all subjects.

Many schools have special cover schemes in term four when Year 12 leave and these staff are free. Artificial restrictions on the class placement hinder the use and equity in these covers, but new approaches redistribute allocated ‘Meadowbank’ periods to better suit both staff and the school alike. This increases savings on casual expenses, but also provides better equity and cover placement to teachers – e.g. not on their busy days. Active prompting by a system of merge class opportunities also leads to great savings, as it reduces the number of classes which need to be covered.

‘Timetable’ cost of ownership

Big business always focuses on ‘total cost of ownership’ (TCO), but schools often don’t. TCO analysis includes total cost of acquisition and operating costs. The cost of a timetable is related far more to the solution quality, not the timetable software or labour costs to produce it. With more complex tools and well-trained and experienced timetablers, the TCO can be so much lower. The few areas of potential timetable savings listed above are just some in a long list. It is surprising how many different areas, or how significant the savings can really be, if you know how.

Timetabling: The black art

Oddly, there is no formal, independent certified training for timetablers. It is a black art, only handed down to a trusted apprentice every decade or so. Understood by very few, yet – like an air-traffic controller – they direct millions of dollars of school resources, and shape the educational lives of thousands.

You’d imagine educational entities would mandate standards for their school ‘air-traffic controllers’, in training, in software, in timetabling best practice – as published policy – and with organised conventions to bring school knowledge and industry together. Sadly there is no such focus. It remains a black art, which allows inefficiencies to foster. Who would know what opportunities are being lost in our schools, both financial and educational. This is the hidden cost of timetabling.

Where do I start?

There are simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to leveraging your existing resources for significant financial savings. Review your timetabling software, review your legacy scheduling practices. Get rid of the age old ‘we’ve always done it that way’ mentality – or even worse – a mindset that the timetable is a ‘job to be done’ rather than a creative opportunity to really make a difference. Focus far more on the quality of the solution, instead of just completion of a task. The timetable directs the sum total of all schools resources – scheduling makes all the difference.

Truly value your timetabler. Give them respect. Listen to their advice. Give them allowance time to do their job properly, or embrace assistance from external consultants in support, or curriculum reviews. Encourage staff to engage in ongoing industry training courses. Treat any costs for this as a sound investment paying real financial rewards, as well as delivering improved educational outcomes. Why not schedule in some discussion time now, and start changing your bottom line!

Chris Cooper is a director of Edval Timetables, and active in educational scheduling research. He is also the author of a government accredited textbook. Visit www.edval.com.au for more information.