The Challenges Of Timetabling Part-Time Staff

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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 an asset.

Myths of Part-Time Staff

Part-time staff:

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

Benefits of Part-Time Staff

Part-time staff:

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  • with reduced loads, can be easier to schedule at times
  • are often experienced, unlike newly qualified teachers
  • have more time for lesson prep in time off, unlike stressed full-time staff
  • can sometimes be flexible and may cover activities such as class excursions on their days off, providing a slightly dynamic on-demand workforce
  • loads are reduced, allowing flexible staffing arrangements

Reasons for Difficulties in Flexible Work Scheduling

  1. Lack of good training

There are no formal accreditations for timetabling, nor are there any timetabling conferences. From a Department of Education perspective, there are no benchmarks on timetabling metrics, nor an external review process.

  1. Lack of rotation

Most timetablers learn with a handover from previous staff who have 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.

  1. Poor technology

Legacy timetabling software does not have some key features which make accommodating part-timers’ needs far more effective and easier.

  1. Legacy of process

There is often a ‘it has always been done that way’ mentality. Schools are change averse; it is 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.

  1. Lack of oversight

Internally

Timetablers often do an amazing job, but not always. Regardless of efficacy, they often work in isolation, away from the disruption of school. They deliver a complex solution, which few can challenge. When asked why part-timers could not get their days off, the answer may be ‘because of the timetable’. When asked why the timetable is not 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.

Externally

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. 

Solutions

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 employment agreements. What is the agreement for staff in minutes per week? What activities does this cover? What are the full-time equivalent values and have they been rounded? 

Fixed days off staff

Some staff need specific days off. It is easy to see this as a fixed requirement. Schools neglect to periodically review the restrictions they have placed in their timetable to quantify impact and understand their resources better. Because ‘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; a better approach may be to gently ask the reason for a 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 does not 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 and it is hard to identify the best arrangement.

Modern timetabling software helps. Timetables 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 part-time staff get their days off.

Preferred days off

Some part-time staff are told by schools that their requests for specific days off cannot be accommodated. This may cause the school to lose their staff member, or degrade morale, and in turn their teaching effectiveness. More modern software allows consideration of preferred days off; they do not restrict the timetable much, but do help to ensure it probably works better for the part-time staff involved.

Two half days

Sometimes schools see days off as a binary choice; they can be either given 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 teachers’ daily work activities, they are happier, refreshed, prepared and able to do their job as intended!

Late start/early finish

Return-to-work mothers may need to start late or leave early. Schools do not like to accommodate such requests, but this may 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 do not see option blocks as a part of the timetabling process, but they should ideally be done in context of a whole school draft timetable, before signing off.  If not, schools end up with great blocks they cannot staff, schedule, or that do not work with part-timers.

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

Getting Creative

Not all timetablers know their options and not all schools allow creative options to work. However, there are some solutions:

  • Organise a job share – replace a departing full-time 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 external support from professional consultants like Edval or Mist – collaborative scheduling, construction services and timetabler-in-residence help schools to get better trained, experienced staff, without paying for training or replacement.
  • Consider timetable audits – consultants review the school’s timetable independently, for health check comments, or detailed reporting. 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 that have been surpassed long ago in timetable technology innovation. Meanwhile, curriculums are becoming more complex.

To better support flexible working, schools 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 and welcome part-time staff back into the workforce, as they remain an asset and not an obstacle to a school’s success.

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Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper is Director of Operations at Edval Timetables
Chris Cooper

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