Diary of a headteacher: The timetabling challenge

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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Timetabling is incredibly important, but with funding pressures on-going, we have to ask much more of our teachers and leaders than we’d like to...

The summer term is a busy period. Staffing, timetabling and forward-planning occupy our time, and ensuring this work is successfully completed secures the foundations for the forthcoming academic year.

I am always glad to see the back of the teacher resignation deadline so we can finalise how we will be deploying our teachers from September. Most heads will tell you that they simply cannot afford to run their school with any surplus teaching periods within their staffing model, so it is critical to ensure the person writing the timetable produces a model that is efficient and cost-effective.

I always give my timetable writer some principles to work from, such as not splitting groups between teachers, keeping teachers within their specialist subject and, where possible, teachers staying with the same classes throughout key stage 4. This is not always possible, but it does at least give us a framework from which to work from.

One of the perennial topics of conversation at this time of year is the teaching load of staff. Teachers in this country teach far too much and if we were able to fund schools adequately then I would certainly hope to bring the timetable load down for my staff.

If I could afford to have a main scale teacher delivering 18 lessons (out of 25) each week, just think about the opportunities there would be for collaboration with colleagues, CPD, genuine planning time and a manageable work/life balance. Sadly, the need to run a cost-effective timetable means that my teachers deliver 22 out of 25 – this means they are never going to be as effective as they could be.

The same applies for my middle leaders. Heads of department are the engine room of our schools and quite often they are walking a tightrope in their extremely complex roles. They have to set the vision and strategies for their department, ensure that their staff deliver and strike the balance in holding colleagues to account while also forging the close bonds that build team spirit, consensus and collective buy-in.

The major challenge though is fitting all this complex work into a timetable that sees them teaching 18 to 20 lessons out of 25. I know I ask a huge amount of my middle leaders and I support them by giving them autonomy and freedom, but I understand it is one of the hardest jobs in my school.

And then there are my senior leaders – the colleagues I work with most closely and who are responsible, with me, for delivering the whole-school objectives to the highest possible standard. They are often spinning so many different plates it astonishes me how efficient and effective they are.

However, I always ensure my senior leaders never forget the fact that they are teachers and that their lessons should be up there with the most effective teaching in the school. We have to set an example, practice what we preach, walk the walk. For my senior leadership team to have credibility they must be able to deliver great teaching and concurrently deliver impact in their whole-school responsibilities.

This is no mean feat and I know that a significant responsibility rests on my shoulders to ensure my team are able to achieve a good work/life balance and not burn themselves out. If I could reduce the teaching load of my senior leadership team then I know this would give them the capacity they genuinely need. Sadly we cannot afford this and as a result I have to ask my assistant heads to teach a 50 per cent timetable with my deputies on 30 per cent.

And then there is me. A long time ago I accepted that my days of teaching my subject were over and ever since moving into senior leadership roles I have led a nomadic teaching life, delivering six different subjects to a variety of year groups. When there is a gap in the timetable that we cannot fill then invariably I sign myself up for as many as five lessons a week.

I have found that this keeps me sharp in the classroom and it enables me to maintain a sense of perspective. With all the unpleasant aspects of the job that come with headship, it is the short windows of time in the classroom that often provide me with the highlight of my week. Teaching for a headteacher is a genuine time of solace, a catharsis that certainly keeps me sane and ensures I never forget where my passion for working in education all began.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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