Tackling a whole-school timetable

The end of the school year is approaching, and among the countless tasks educators are already busy with in anticipation for the first day of term in 2019 is the whole-school timetable. For secondary schools in particular, coordinating a timetable can be challenging.

Christine Petersen, Deputy Principal (Curriculum and Operations) at Willetton Senior High School in Perth, Western Australia, dedicates a significant amount of time each year to creating the timetable for the secondary school.

With approximately 2300 students enrolled, it's no wonder the planning begins early and involves many.

The process commences about six weeks into the school year here in Australia, in March, for the following year's timetable. ‘Three full-time staff are directly involved in the process,' Petersen tells Teacher. ‘About 100 hours of supplementary clerical time and 50 hours of supplementary teacher time [are needed]. The Heads of Learning area also put in several hours each, as do the staff involved in counselling students.'

These hours are used to coordinate hundreds of classes. In Year 7, there are 150 classes to timetable; Years 8 and 9 have 140; Year 10 has 160; and there are 140 classes each to schedule in Years 11 and 12. In Semester 2, the number of classes swells to 200 and 175 for Year 7 and Years 8 and 9, respectively.

While her role also includes handling enrolments, reporting, and examination and test scheduling, Petersen says there are around 20 weeks during the year when more than 60 per cent of her workload is concentrated solely on preparing the timetable. ‘There is a break [from working on the timetable] from mid-February to mid-March. Other than that, it's happening every week,' she says, adding that some work also needs to be done during the school holidays.

Petersen and her team only ever work on one version of the timetable and constantly edit throughout the year. ‘The editing continues until the end of the year and sometimes into the new year,' she says. ‘For example, I have just [in October] removed a class from Year 8 and one from Year 9, and have to review the classes for the Year 12s.'

In terms of challenges, the fluctuating preferences for elective subjects from students tends to have the biggest effect on their planning. There is almost no flexibility in room arrangements and low flexibility with the school's staffing profile, Petersen says.

To combat difficult issues, she says having a good process for data collecting is essential. Keeping good records, and starting early in the year are also key.

For those looking to review their processes for preparing timetables, Petersen advises schools to trial, but try not to prolong the process. ‘Nothing is worse than drawn out change,' she says. ‘Clear, organised and quick change is less offensive, even though people may complain. Remember who it is to benefit, and if that group aren't complaining then it may be going well.'

Christine Petersen says an essential component to avoiding difficulties when creating timetables is to have a good process in place for data collection. As a member of the school leadership team, how could you better use student data to help plan for and predict timetables for the following and future years?