How to create a good timetable in primary schools

Anyone who has never been confronted with the task of creating a timetable may think that it is a simple task. Nothing could be further from the truth. The head of studies knows the complexity of balancing subjects with their weekly distribution, dealing with the lengths of periods, allocating classrooms or the headache of managing to balance the timetable of teachers. It is necessary to understand that there is no magic in timetabling.

However, as always, experience is a degree. The more timetables you have created, the better you know the problems and the tricks to simplify this task. In this blog post we want to show a methodology to prepare good timetables for primary and pre-school. Of course, this is only an approximation, as each school has its own characteristics. Therefore, no one better than the head of studies will know how to extract what they can take advantage of what is presented here.

There are differences between primary and secondary (or other educational systems) timetables. Pre-school and primary education have very particular characteristics. Some of these are:

  • The presence of mentors and specialists with different profiles.
  • Difference between choosing tutors or co-tutors.
  • 30 or 45 minute sections and class units.
  • Coincidence or not of breaks for all groups.
  • Possibility of bilingualism.
  • Variations in the timetable by community or school.

Below, we will show a methodology based on the experience learned with many schools over so many years.

Pre-analysis of teaching load and teacher profiles

First of all, and before starting to create the timetable, there are two aspects to take into account: the timetable for each course, and the profiles of the teachers assigned for this academic year.

As a general rule, the timetable for each course is 30 hours per week, of which 25 are teaching hours and 5 hours are complementary activities. Among the 25 teaching hours, 22.5 hours are spent with pupils and 2.5 hours are spent supervising breaks. In addition, it is usual for the distribution between the days to be equal, with 4.5 teaching hours and half an hour of break time on each day. However, neither the timetable nor the number of hours for each subject is always the same.

Each autonomous region defines a list and number of hours for the subjects, which is usually different from the rest of the regions. In addition, as a school we have a certain degree of autonomy to make modifications. We can offer other subjects, such as a second foreign language, two co-official languages, technology and robotics… Or even make some changes to the timetable.

The other important preliminary factor is the teacher profile of the teachers who have been assigned to our school this academic year. All primary school teachers can be tutors, and teach maths, Spanish, natural sciences… But some teachers are specialists, and are in charge of teaching physical education, music, English or religion. In order to be able to teach these subjects, teachers have to accredit certain competences. Thus, depending on the number and profile of specialists available, the allocation of teachers to subjects will vary.

On the other hand, it is also essential to be aware of the restrictions that teachers have. These restrictions may be due to a reduction in working hours, or because they are itinerant teachers with other schools. In other words, some of the teachers we have in the school may also be in other schools or music schools, and we may only have them available on certain days or at certain times of the day.

Define time frame

Once the previous analysis has been carried out, the first action to be taken is to define the time frame (or time grid) in which the class units will be taught. Assuming a regular framework with the same teaching time each day (4.5 hours), the three most common options to define the time periods are:

  1. 4 sections of 1 hour, and 1 section of ½ hour.
  2. 3 sections of 1 hour, and 2 sections of ¾ of an hour.
  3. 6 sections of ¾ of an hour.

In the first two cases, we can replace any 1 hour section with 2 sections of ½ hour. The third option has the advantage that all the time slots are of the same length, so teachers, regardless of the subjects they teach, can place their class units in any position. But it has the disadvantage that there are durations that cannot be achieved (such as 2 hours), so that either there are different weekly timetables, or not all durations are achieved exactly.

Although these are the most commonly used options, we can configure the time frame according to the needs and convenience of our school.  In addition, we have other options in the configuration of the time frame: having more than one time frame to assign to different groups, or defining different timetables for each day. These actions can give us a flexibility that avoids that some teacher’s class units can only be placed in certain time periods, making it impossible to obtain a solution for a specific timetable.

Another increasingly common configuration is to have different breaks for certain groups. For example, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades would coincide in the playground, and then 4th, 5th and 6th grades would do the same. This facilitates, among other things, supervision by teachers, although it makes it difficult for us to obtain a timetable.

Creation of class units in phases

Once we have defined the time frame, it is time to create the class units for the students. And, as the saying goes, “divide and rule.” It is very useful not to create all the class units at once, but to create them in different phases. This will allow us to discover which conditions may cause us problems in obtaining our timetable. The idea is to start with the most difficult class units to set up, and then continue with the rest of the class units.

Thus, we recommend placing the class units in the following three phases:

  1. Specialist class units.
  2. Teachers’ class units outside their group/tutorial group.
  3. Tutor class units in their group/tutorial group.

In phase 1 we will take into account the specialist class units. The reason for this is that specialists teach different courses, so they are considered a “shared” resource. This means that the placement of their class units affects many other colleagues.

Then, in phase 2, we will incorporate class units taught by teachers outside the group for which they are tutors. Although they do not have the complexity of the class units in phase 1, these lessons affect two teachers and two groups. That is, if John teaches 1st A grade (for which he is not a tutor), then the tutor of 1st A grade and the group tutored by John are also affected.

Finally, in phase 3 we add up the class units taught by each teacher to the group he is tutor. These are the simplest class units, as only one teacher and one group are involved. In the case of having co-tutors in groups A and B of the same grade, we would take into account the class units of both at the same time, as they are strongly related.

There are alternatives and variations we can make to avoid conflicts with the class units. For example:

  • There are small variations that communities allow between the number of hours of lessons. This makes it possible, for example, to transfer 15 minutes from one subject to another, thus freeing up time periods to place teacher class units, and allowing a solution to be found in the classroom.
  • Play with the allocation of the hours of Arts Education between Music and Drama. In curricular plans, the total of the sum of both is usually defined, but it is not necessary for them to have the same duration. Depending on the number of class units the music specialist has, we may be interested in giving one duration or another to each group.

Creation of non-class units

Finally, there are other non-teaching activities carried out by teachers. These activities are not directed at pupils, but they are equally essential for our school. These activities are, for example, playground supervision, management tasks or on-call hours to ensure that we always have a teacher available to cover absences.

Other activities of vital importance in the primary and pre-school timetables are the work periods during school hours. This type of activities includes, among others, group meetings, meetings with parents, or the pedagogical coordination committee.

In addition, there are other criteria that we must take into account, such as reduced working hours, non-teaching hours for teachers over a certain age, and other school conditions or pedagogical criteria that we have defined. All of these must be reflected in the timetable that we finally submit to the relevant administration.

Using GHC

Manual is error-prone. That’s why having a tool that automates timetabling is extremely useful.

GHC allows us not only to automate the creation of the timetable, but also to enjoy a series of advantages in the generation and daily management of the timetable:

  • Exchange with academic managers: GHC exchanges with all public academic managers in Spain, and with many private ones. Thanks to this, we can easily download all the elements of the platform to create our timetable. And then upload the timetable solution, avoiding the time and possible errors when manually entering the timetable in the academic manager.
  • Search automation: By simply indicating the configuration and restrictions of our schedule, GHC will automatically search for a solution. This saves us days of work looking for valid solutions, and avoids the uncertainty of knowing whether or not there is a possible solution to our configuration.
  • Detection of errors and impossible conditions: GHC includes a validator that will warn us of errors and impossible conditions that we have defined. It also includes tools to identify class units that prevent us from obtaining a solution.
  • Quick adjustment to modifications: A change of teacher at the beginning of the academic year, or a reduction of the working day with the timetable already created, an error in the number of hours of a subject… There are many reasons that can invalidate the solution, and even make all the work done useless. With GHC, it is a matter of seconds to introduce this change, and automatically create another solution that fulfils all the previous requirements and the new ones specified.
  • Optimising the solution: What is a good timetable? One that compacts the teachers’ timetable, minimises the change of classrooms of the students, adjusts the timetables of teachers who share a car to come to the school, meets the pedagogical criteria that we have defined… There are many factors to optimise in a schedule. Fortunately, in GHC we can weigh these conditions, and the software will check among millions of options until it finds an optimal solution, within the existing possibilities.
  • Timetable management tools: Beyond the creation of the timetable and the exchange with the timetable manager, the Peñalara subscription offers us much more. Thanks to GHC Web App we can manage the day-to-day running of the school in matters relating to the timetable. It is worth highlighting these two modules:
    • Timetable viewer by profiles: Both the school and the teachers and students will have access to their timetable available on any browser or mobile device. In addition, we can configure the permissions of each user profile on the timetables that can be displayed.
    • Absence and substitution manager: This system allows teachers to inform us if they are going to be absent. We can also directly create the absences that our teachers have made or are going to make. The application will show the class units without a teacher. On them, we cannot only check which teachers are on duty or free, but also assign a supply teacher. This teacher will receive a notification on their device with all the information about the absence to be covered.

We will also receive all the help and advice from the Peñalara team on how to set up our timetable.

Optimal timetables for education

A better schedule from a pedagogical point of view can improve the quality of education. Certainly, a good school timetable can increase students’ efficiency, achieve a better use of classrooms, as well as increase the satisfaction of teachers in their work.  However, the criteria used to draw up timetables are not always obvious, nor can they be applied over and above the organisational needs that exist in each educational institution.

Schools usually try to establish one or other criteria for timetabling, adopting rules that help to achieve certain objectives. Nevertheless, in practice, these rules are only applied as far as possible. That is to say, they should be observed while being rationally balanced with organisational needs. For example, a pedagogical consideration might be that PE should be taught in the last hour of the morning, but if there is only one teacher for this subject this will obviously not be possible. Avoiding that all weekly class units of the same subject coincide in the early or late morning or after recess will also be conditioned by teacher availability.

Other criteria do not conflict so clearly with organisational constraints, but will undoubtedly be conditioned. Pedagogical guidelines applicable to the schedule, such as balancing the teaching load or avoiding too many lessons consecutively, may clash with the criterion of trying to achieve a timetable as compact as possible. In other words, the criteria for teachers’ timetables should not only be balanced between each other, but also with other preferences and within the organisational constraints that exist. Similarly, it should be kept in mind that the best use of classrooms from a pedagogical point of view should be adapted to their actual availability.

EReflection is needed to discern what criteria are applied in each school and with what priority. But once we know what we are looking for and to what extent, what is really important is to find it in practice. That is, to find solutions that satisfy an optimal compromise; those that, while meeting the academic and organisational requirements, observe as far as possible the established guidelines and preferences. So the question really is: Is there a tool that allows the weighting of certain criteria to be adapted in a flexible and optimal way to the academic organisation?

The answer is yes, there is a tool designed for this purpose and it is very effective in its usefulness. The scheduling software for educational institutions not only makes it possible to define different criteria and give them a weighting, but also to adjust the individual preferences of the elements that make up the school timetable. The best timetables will be achieved by adding flexibility to the strict order conditions. The solutions offered by the engine are optimal. We can state that GHC not only offers the necessary academic and organisational solutions with great efficiency, but also that these will observe as far as possible the guidelines and preferences established in each school.

Is it possible to have the perfect timetable?

Fitting in the weekly timetables of a moderately big or complex school is not an easy task. This is well known to those who have faced sometimes this problem and, to a greater extent, to those who have the responsibility to make so every year; a real puzzle has to be solved. But if it is difficult to find a solution that meets the minimum requirements, finding the best solution seems like an impossible task. And this is precisely the question we ask: Is it possible to make perfect timetables?

Clearly, and unfortunately, we must say that the perfect timetable is impossible and there are several reasons to affirm it. The first and most obvious is that any model for expressing what is sought will have imperfections. Indeed, the mathematical model through which a weight function is calculated to obtain the optimum timetable and its application to the elements included in the timetable: students, teachers, class units, etc., will always be an approximation to reality which, at best, will be estimated precisely corresponding to what is sought.

The second reason, and this is not so obvious, is that the set of solutions is so high that exhaustive searching is impossible, even for the fastest computer in the world.

Do you remember the paradox of the legend of the inventor of chess?

According to legend, a Persian king, who liked the game of chess, commanded to call his inventor to reward him for his ingenuity. The king recklessly told him to ask for whatever he wanted and the inventor answered: I settle for 1 grain of wheat for the first square of the board, 2 for the second, 4 for the third, 8 for the fourth and so on up to the 64 square of the board. That is the sum of the series 1+2+4+8… until completing 64 terms in geometric progression. The king thought that what he was asking for was a trifle and ordered to prepare the prize requested but doing the calculations they realized that it was impossible to fulfill the order, because the sum of the grains of the 64 boxes was nothing less than the amount of 36,893,488,147,419,103,231 grains. If in each Kilogram of wheat approximately 25,000 grains fit, then the result would be about 1,475,739,525,896 tons. If the largest freighter could hold up to 186,000 net tons, it would take about 8 million huge freighters to transport all the wheat. More than 1000 times the annual world production of wheat.

Knights Templar playing chess

This paradox also occurs with the problem of making academic timetables; it seems that it would be relatively easy to try all possible solutions with a computer but, in fact, it is impossible. The point is that the number of combinations grows exponentially and it would take years of calculation, even with the most powerful computer, to go through them all. The processes that solve this puzzle are studied through a mathematical and computational discipline that tries to give the best possible solution, in reasonable times, to excessively complex problems.

The Peñalara GHC Timetable Generator for Educational Institutions uses a software capable of finding solutions and making them optimal in an extraordinarily effective way in short enough periods of time even in the most complicated cases. The good news is that this type of intractable problems through exhaustive search processes can be solved to a large extent using intelligent algorithms. Finally, we can state with great satisfaction and relief for those who have the responsibility of making the timetables each course, that the ‘perfect’ timetables, in practice, are possible.