A guide to part-time staff and timetables

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper is a cofounder of Edval and the CEO of Edval UK, and has authored many published thought-leadership articles on timetabling. As a senior consultant, he has advised the government and large educational entities on projects, and gives lectures on timetabling philosophy. Chris is active in empowering women through flexible working, smarter timetabling, and reduced teacher workload - both current focus areas of DfE.

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Part-time staff may be seen as an obstacle, difficult and time-consuming to accommodate effectively within the timetable. This is largely a falsehood. By rethinking the problem and identifying innovative solutions, part-time staff can be seen as an asset, not an obstacle. This year, open up exciting new opportunities for part-time staff with smarter timetabling.

What are the myths surrounding part-time staff?

  • Part-time staff make the ‘job’ of timetabling much harder, time-consuming and stressful.
  • Part-time staff cause higher numbers of shared classes, which degrade teaching quality and are disruptive to students.
  • Part-time staff may not keep up with department meetings (knowledge) on days off.

What are the benefits of part-time staff?

  • With reduced loads, part-time staff can be easier to schedule at times.
  • They are often experienced, unlike NQTs.
  • They have more time for lesson prep in time off; unlike stressed full-time staff.
  • They can sometimes be flexible, and on days off may cover activities like class excursions or even classes, as a slightly dynamic on-demand workforce.
  • Part-time staff loads are reduced, allowing flexible staffing arrangements.

Why might there be difficulties in flexible work scheduling?

Lack of good training

There are no formal accreditations for timetabling, nor are there any timetabling conferences. From a DfE perspective, there are no benchmarks on timetabling metrics, nor an Ofsted timetable review process.

Lack of rotation

Most timetablers learn with a hand-over from previous staff, who’ve worked in the same school for several years, or moved from just one or two schools in their career. Lack of exposure to different timetabling environments breeds lethargy and isolation from innovation. Educational consultants who timetable professionally may do many timetables every year, and can assist, or mentor those in schools to do better in scheduling.

Poor technology

Legacy timetabling software doesn’t have some key features, which make accommodating part-timer needs far more effective and easier.

Legacy of process

Then there’s the “It has always been done that way” mentality. Schools are often change-averse, and it’s difficult to adopt new software or processes. Some timetablers might also benefit from training in how to communicate effectively, even if they are very good at the technical aspects of their job.

Lack of oversight: Internal

Timetablers often do an amazing job, but not always. Regardless of efficacy, they often work in isolation, away from the disruption “Many don’t see option blocks as part of the timetabling process.”of school. They deliver a complex solution, which few can challenge. When asked why part-timers couldn’t get their days off, the answer may be “because of the timetable”. When asked why the timetable isn’t that great, the answer can often be “because of the part-timers”. Vague answers are sometimes accepted by schools, as they have no way to challenge them effectively.

Lack of oversight: External

A good solution is to have the timetable audited by a third-party company. This can praise success, show some areas of concern, or demonstrate possible improvements. Importantly, they can debunk myths such as “it can’t be done” by just doing it.

What solutions are on offer?

Examine staff loading / days off

Often schools work to ‘teaching loads’ when timetabling, instead of total loads that make other activities and allowances more visible within the timetable. Sometimes the calculation of teaching time is outdated. It may be time to review your employment agreements. What is the agreement for staff in minutes per week? What activities does this cover? What are the FTE values, and have they been rounded?

Fixed days off

Some staff need specific days off. It is easy to see this as a fixed requirement. Schools often neglect to periodically review the restrictions they have placed in their timetable, to quantify impact and understand their resources better. “It’s always been like that” is never a suitable reason! Good timetablers have a deep understanding of needs.

If staff are asked to ‘change’ days off, they may object, but a better approach may be to gently ask the reason for specific day, and suggest alternatives such as two mornings off.

Flexible days off

A common waste of flexibility in scheduling part-time staff is to treat them all as having fixed days off. Legacy timetabling software doesn’t have the features to auto-allocate days off as best needed by other aspects of the timetable. It can be inefficient, as there may actually be thousands of different combinations of days off for all staff. It’s hard to identify the ‘best’ arrangement of days off.

Modern timetabling software helps. A timetable can be done without periods assigned initially. Then, classes and staffing can be adjusted when it is known all (or most) part-timers can have their days off accommodated, before days or even periods are ‘allocated’. The result can be a higher likelihood that part-time staff get their days off.

Preferred days off

Some part-time staff are told by schools “no, we can’t accommodate your specific days off requests, you will get what we give you.” This is a shame, and may cause the school to lose a staff member, or degrade morale and, in turn, their teaching effectiveness.

More modern software platforms allows consideration of preferred days off. They don’t restrict the timetable much, but do help ensure it probably works better for the part-time staff involved.

Two half-days

Sometimes, schools see days off as a binary choice. We can either give them or not. It may have the part-timer working nearly full-time hours, but with many gaps in their timetable. Good timetabling software automatically allocates part-timers with half days off where possible. By better managing all teacher’s daily work activities, they are happier, refreshed, prepared, and able to do their job as intended!

Late start / early finish

New parents returning to work may need to start late or leave early. Schools don’t like to accommodate such ‘requests’, but this can alienate good teachers. There is a big difference from a requirement that stipulates a teacher MUST always have first or last period off, versus a preference to be free.

Option blocks with part-time staff

Option blocks are usually done separately to ‘the timetable’. Many don’t see option blocks as a ‘part’ of the timetabling process. Option blocks should ideally be done in context of a whole school draft timetable, before signing off. Schools otherwise end up with great big blocks that they can’t staff, schedule, or that don’t work with part-timers.

The management of part-time staff on senior option block classes isn’t a major problem, provided they are known at the outset, and planned for when generating blocks. Good timetabling software caters to staffing ‘options’, so can be timetabled in draft, regardless of not knowing ‘actual’ staffing.

Getting Creative

Not all timetablers know their options. Not all schools ‘allow’ creative options to work. Some solutions are:

  • Organise a job share. Replace a departing FT staff member with a part-timer that job shares with another.
  • Run some classes after school. A part-timer on a senior block may be able to be scheduled to last period, and then take a second period immediately after school that same day.
  • Consider timetable audits. Consultants review your timetable independently for health check comments or detailed reporting.
  • For years, HoDs have been setting staffing. Best practice timetabling includes periodic review.

Summary

For years, timetabling has been an administrative task. Some timetablers are dedicated, but many schools suffer from tools which have been surpassed long ago in timetable technology innovation. Meanwhile curriculums are becoming more complex over time.

To better support flexible working, we should manage the perceived difficulty in part-time staff. They have some impact, but better timetabling software, support helps a lot. Rethink the amazing opportunity to access a rich, quality workforce. This year, welcome them more warmly back into the workforce, as they remain an asset and not an obstacle to a school's success.

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