Can you help us to publish a more stable school timetable that is available to teachers and students on time?
School timetables for a course at Avans University of Applied Sciences were always late. Every period, workforce coordinators had a terrible time hammering out the timetable. And a lot of changes were always made after its publication. That made life difficult for students, who often had to reschedule appointments at the last minute and struggle with planning jobs on the side. In addition, they regularly had lots of free periods. And it made life difficult for teachers, who were ‘fully booked’ and did not see any room to be flexible in their tasks and appointments.
Timetabling is a complex process, one which is dependent on many factors. Our analysis showed that the workforce coordinators lacked the right information at the right time. If you try to schedule without knowing which classes have to be taught, which teachers are available, or when the project weeks are, it is impossible to produce a stable timetable. But the main problem proved to be teacher availability. All a teacher’s hours are set down in their annual working time. Those hours were allocated, which made them – not the teaching programme – leading for the timetabling process. This was very limiting, because every little variation in the timetable due to a teacher’s sickness or absence led directly to major timetable changes. Result: unhappy students and teachers under pressure. So making the objective (giving students an education) the focus again seemed the way to go.
The object of the project was therefore two-fold: to put students and classes first again in the timetabling process and to give teachers a greater sense of freedom in managing their time and work. In other words, to shift the focus from resources to results, where the curriculum – rather than teacher availability – would be leading.
For the project, we formed a working group made up of workforce coordinators, timetabling staff, teachers, and students. We and the working group took the following steps:
What goes into making a timetable? Which systems do we use and what kinds of problems do we run into? What should the new process look like? And if we want to schedule classes without using teacher availability as the guideline, how can we produce a proper timetable? By discussing these questions together at length, all members of the working group obtained a better understanding of the subject and each other. And that also helped to get everyone on their toes for the following steps.
Together, we then defined the preconditions and defining factors for punctual and stable timetabling. The main precondition was punctual and accurate information about the curriculum, annual timetable, and classrooms. Teacher flexibility was named as the main defining factor: which subjects did they need to be able to teach?
Then we did some test runs: producing a timetable for the coming term on the basis of the established goal and basis. To solve the problems that we ran into on the way, we took a pragmatic approach. If not everything could be derived from the system, we put together our own information or came up with an alternative to get what we needed. For example, the staffing was not yet complete. But instead of letting that get in our way, we continued to schedule classes on the basis of the smallest teacher headcount.
After the test run, we had a provisional timetable. We then filled the timetable with teachers in group sessions. The timetable contained the fixed classes, times, and classrooms from which the teachers could choose. The remaining classes were divided by us together among the group.
Only a couple of teaching periods are planned for teachers each day – they fill in the rest of the time themselves
The new timetabling process worked exactly as planned. Students have a repeating timetable and are practically only at school for teaching periods. Moreover, the classes are better spread: students have two or three hours of classes every day – depending on the school’s policy – rather than none one day and seven hours the next. Only a couple of teaching periods are planned for teachers each day – they fill in the rest of the time themselves. And now they can do committee work and supervise practical training at times that are convenient and make sense.