Timetabling for education - Education Matters Magazine
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Timetabling for education

Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may cut your staffing costs by thousands, writes Chris Cooper.

Schools face an ongoing challenge to offer suitable and cost-effective educational opportunities to all students. This is accomplished via efficient scheduling of resources to match classes, teachers and learning spaces. This scheduling is best managed by a well-implemented timetable package.

Curriculum structures

When was the last time you reviewed your curriculum structure?

Optimisations can be made in the structure of a timetable. Some key considerations could be:

  • The advantages of running some subjects in a Line or Block and how this might restrict the availability of resources.
  • Grouping students for a number of subjects giving them more access to specialist rooms and teachers.
  • Run lines where half the year cohort study core subjects while the remainder study electives.
  • Setting the number of core classes, or how core and (smaller) practical classes merge together can play a part. Do you really need that extra practical class or are you hindered by a legacy of previous years, which dictates that you ‘always’ split pairs of core classes into three practical classes? This may no longer be the most efficient approach. Perhaps you could run one core class that is ‘also’ a practical class and split three into four.
  • Combining classes in some subjects may give students access to a greater range of choices by offering electives across two or more years where vertical classes could consist of students from years 9 & 10, 11 & 12, or 9, 10 & 11 as is common in many states. Composite classes can also be used to run two classes with small numbers of students studying similar subjects or subjects at different levels.

Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may well cut your staffing costs by thousands. Perhaps you do not need to build that extra Science lab, instead just change your curriculum structures to improve occupancy rates on your existing labs and other resources, at no extra cost.

Which elective classes should run?

Determining just which electives will run is often difficult. There are constraints on the number of classes that can be staffed and roomed. Then there are the student requests. You could second-guess student choices and just use the raw data from pre-determined lines that always run together. However, you could use the preferential weight of students who can be granted 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? Student preference level should be a strong indicator, but other factors could also be important such as retention of students.

Good timetable software will automatically deduce the best arrangement of subjects to run, or numbers of classes to run, within specific guidelines as set by the school. When it comes to generating elective lines it is often better to use an umbrella year structure which allocates lines or blocks for subjects across a number of school years to take advantage of vertical and composite classes.

However the decision is made, determining the number and type of classes to run is incredibly complex. It has a massive effect on educational outcomes, retention rates and on the school’s bottom line and should not be a decision taken lightly.

Collapse classes

At the end of Year 11 students typically reassess their educational progress and aspirations. This often leads to a reduction in the number of subjects or units being studied. Suddenly some classes have half the number of students they had at the start of the year.

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 and only applies to that one subject. Clever timetablers and clever software tools allow collapsing of classes “across lines” without changing the subjects granted to students. 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 reprocessing the lines themselves. Reprocessing lines may be just a few clicks away, given the right tools. If you could reduce your classes by one or more, without affecting student choice, how much could this save your school?

Total costs of timetable software

Big business always focuses on total cost of ownership (TCO), but it is not often the focus in a school. TCO analysis includes total cost of acquisition and operating costs. The cost of a timetable is related far more to the solution quality than the timetable software or labour costs to produce it. With more complex tools, well trained and experienced timetablers, the TCO can be much lower. Timetabling is understood by very few and yet the timetable directs millions of dollars of school resources, shaping the educational lives of thousands.

Accessing support in using timetabling software may add to the initial cost but will deliver savings overall. Our own company, Edval Timetables, has a well-established online model providing flexible and efficient support and our training days have BOSTES accreditation in New South Wales. We also provide a range of services with our highly experienced staff such as consultation at key points of structural change, a timetable construction service and a key new service: a ‘timetabler-in-residence’: schools are able to have a year round Edval consultant constructing and maintaining the timetable. All of these options result in improved educational outcomes for schools.

Where do I start?

Educational entities do not necessarily mandate standards for their school scheduling either in training, in software, in timetabling best practice, as published policy or with organised conventions to bring school knowledge and industry together. Timetable generation rarely gets a mention, even in government tenders, allowing inefficiencies to fester. Who would know what opportunities are being lost in our schools, both educational and financial? This is the hidden cost of timetabling.

There are simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to leveraging your existing resources for significant financial savings. Review your timetabling software, review your legacy scheduling practices. Change from the ‘We’ve always done it that way’ mindset. Recognise that the timetable is a creative opportunity to really make a difference rather than a ‘job to be done’. Focus far more on the quality of the solution, instead of just completion of a task. The timetable directs the sum total of all the school’s resources and efficient scheduling makes all the difference.

Truly value your timetabler. Give them respect. Listen to their advice. Allocate them 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.

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