What is the cost of your timetable? A simple question perhaps – but the answer is complex. When asked, most schools immediately think of either the cost of timetabling software, or else the cost in staff time and expense in performing the task of ‘doing’ the timetable. Sound reasonable? This is a very common, but (sadly) large misconception.
Many think timetable running costs are largely fixed and known. Apart from ‘over-staffing’ the school – surely costs are fixed? You have a number of classes, each need to be taught by staff – how could you possibly reduce this cost? Or, on a daily basis, you need to cover classes with casuals – surely there is not much scope for cost savings here? Nothing could be further from the truth – these costs are NOT fixed quantities, and significant savings can often be made quite simply, if you know how. The true cost of timetabling is the solution. The cost of RUNNING your timetable is far more important than the cost of constructing it. The school must pay for their timetable every single day for a year, with the costs being many millions of dollars. What many schools misunderstand is that the running cost of a timetable can vary wildly based on the quality of the solution, and how well trained and experienced the staff are that manage the timetable in an ongoing way.
Well before we even begin to staff classes, optimisations can be made in the structure of a timetable. Setting the number of core classes, or how core and (smaller) practical classes merge together can play a part. Do you really need that extra practical class? Or are you hindered by a legacy of previous years, which dictates that you ‘always’ split pairs of core classes into three practical classes. Is this most efficient? Can you run one core class that is ‘also’ a practical class? Can you split three into four? Can you combine classes in some subjects? Careful analysis of timetable structures to maximise class sizes within acceptable limits may well cut your staffing costs by thousands. Do you need to build that extra science laboratory? Or could you change your curriculum structures to improve occupancy rates on your existing laboratories at no extra cost?
When was the last time you reviewed structures? Are your current staff trained or experienced enough to perform this assessment? Are they hindered by ‘resistance to change’ and a legacy of past practices? Do they need encouragement or allowances to conduct a proper review? How much could you save?
A real example: “Using a more complex vertical structure with Yr12 and 11, we saved over 37 periods. This is equivalent to saving over one full time teaching load!” – Tom Massarella, HT Administration, Dapto High School
Which Elective Classes Should Run?
Many schools are unaware of the huge impact that determining classes to run has on their bottom line, as well as educational aims. The age old, inefficient approach to setting what to run is based on student requests. If enough students ask for a subject, it will run. This is far from best practice: it costs schools thousands and affects students’ educational opportunities. But like many aspects in the complex art of timetabling, this is a hidden cost, understood by very few.
Instead of the raw ‘numbers of student requests’, what matters more is the preferential weight of students who can be granted these subjects, together with the likelihood they will actually complete the subject. If 15 students want Art, and 12 want Biology, and you have to cut one of these classes – which should go? If the group of 12 was much keener on Biology than the 15 are for Art, would this matter? What if five of the Biology group were expected to leave next year anyway, and others in this same group were poor academic students? What if line structures were unable to grant any more than say ten out of the 15 requests for Art? Would you still run Biology over Art?
Some timetable software can even automatically deduce the best arrangement of what subjects to run, or how many classes to run, within specific guidelines set by the school. Whether it is done by software or done manually, deciding on the number of classes to run is incredibly complex, but has a massive effect on the school’s bottom line.
A real example: “A timetable consultant showed how we could totally cut two whole classes and yet still satisfy more student preferences than the lines we had proposed to run. This was just an amazing difference.” – Robert Aerlic, Timetabler, Matraville Sports High School
All schools know they can run two classes on a line so they can easily collapse to one class if numbers drop later in the year but it is not ideal to run both classes in one line, as it reduces access to choice. Clever timetablers and clever software tools allow collapsing of classes ‘across lines’. This can be achieved in several ways, such as swapping students through subjects they take in other lines where there is more than one class of that subject, or by adjusting the lines themselves. This is moving entire classes through lines which are currently being taught. So few know this is even an option, may scoff at this as impossible, or even timetable heresy – yet it may just be a few clicks away, given the right tools. How much could this save your school?
A real example: “We were shown how we could collapse three classes ‘across lines’. At around $20,000 per class with on-costs, this was an estimated saving of $60,000 alone. I later moved from SCEGS Redlands to Tara, and again I was able to collapse three classes across lines this year for a similar $60,000 estimated saving.” – Sam Cannavo, Director of Curriculum, Tara Anglican School.
Save Money On Casual Teachers
Schools spend plenty on casual teachers to replace absent staff – some well over $100,000 per year. Many regard this as a cost they can’t reduce – because surely these classes must always be covered, and there is little chance of trying to reduce the need to cover classes is there? Wrong. There are many ways to significantly reduce this expense with clever timetabling tools, and the right experience.
Some clever cover systems support automatic covers of classes as a good start point for smaller manual adjustments, and can ensure casual staff are utilised more efficiently. Active system prompting of on-call staff or available internal staff (who may be under load, or have an in-lieu) also helps schools cap their casual staff expense, as it is easier – or even automatic – to make best use of staff who don’t cost any more money.
Efficiently constructed on-call rosters will promote equity in subsequent allocations, as well as faculty diversity – meaning there is always one English teacher available on-call each period – in case an English class needs a cover for example. This approach encourages better educational matching of covers to all subjects. “Deliver education” instead of “paying casuals for babysitting” is a mantra to focus on here, but a good on-call roster also reduces casual expenses.
Many schools have special cover schemes in term four when Yr12 students leave and Yr12 staff are free. Often known as Meadowbanks (after a big industrial relations issue involving a school in NSW), this term was used originally by NSW state schools, but has grown in use to other sectors. Artificial restrictions on the class placement (for example, Yr12 English ‘was’ a block line – but this is not an issue when Yr12 has left) hinder the use and equity in these covers, but new approaches redistribute allocated Meadowbank periods to better suit both staff and the school alike. This increases savings on casual expenses, but also provides better equity and cover placement to teachers – for example, not being allocated on their busy days.
Active prompting by a system of merge class opportunities also leads to great savings, as it reduces the number of classes that need to be covered. Why hire a casual when you can sit eight students up the back of another small class and have the existing teacher supervise both classes together? Or collapse two classes needing covers on a period into one, to remove the need for the second casual?
A real example: “Our school has saved about $8,000 this year on the casual teacher budget alone, solely through using clever tools. This is above, and far more than the cost of the cover software itself!” – Tania Turik, Deputy Principal, Pittwater High School
‘Timetable’ Cost Of Ownership
Big business always focuses on ‘Total cost of ownership’ (TCO), but schools often don’t. TCO analysis includes total cost of acquisition and operating costs. Buy a cheap printer, but pay through the nose (perhaps fifty times more), over the lifetime of the printer for the ink. More expensive printers may have far lower ink costs, and thus far lower TCO; So ‘cheap’ may not be cheap in the long run.
Not all understand the economics of printers, but even fewer understand the economics of timetabling. The cost of a timetable is related far more to the solution quality, not the timetable software or labour costs to produce it. With more complex tools and well trained and experienced timetablers, the TCO can be so much lower. The few areas of potential timetable savings discussed above are just some in a long list. It is surprising how significant the savings can really be, in many different areas, if you know how. A new timetabler at a very large Victorian school was able to show the school could operate with six fewer full time staff with the same number of students, for massive ongoing annual savings well over $300,000! And while staffing costs are large, they are certainly not the only area where savings can be achieved.
Timetabling: The Black Art
Oddly, there is no formal, independent certified training for timetablers. It is a black art; only handed down to a trusted apprentice every decade or so. Timetabling is understood by very few, yet – like an air-traffic controller directing airplanes, timetablers direct millions of dollars of school resources, and shape the educational lives of thousands. It is surprising how much power they really wield.
You would imagine educational entities would mandate standards for their school ‘air-traffic controllers’, in training, in software, in timetabling best practice – as published policy, and with organised conventions to bring school knowledge and industry together. Sadly there is no such focus. Timetable generation rarely gets a mention, such as in government tenders. It remains a black art, which allows inefficiencies to fester. Who would know what opportunities, both financial and educational, are being lost in our schools? This is the hidden cost of timetabling.
When questioned by their principal “Why can’t we …?” the timetablers ready response is “Because of the timetable”. The principal nods, sadly aware this common response is too difficult to debate, as they don’t have the black art skills, and who else can they turn to? So inefficiencies continue through the ages. What is wrong with this picture?
Where Do I Start?
There are simple, relatively inexpensive solutions to leveraging your existing resources for significant financial savings. Review your timetabling software, review your legacy scheduling practices. Get rid of the age old ‘We’ve always done it that way’ mentality, or even worse – a mindset that the timetable is a ‘job to be done’ rather than a creative opportunity to really make a difference. Focus on the quality of the solution, instead on just completion of a task. The timetable directs the sum total of all schools resources – scheduling makes all the difference.
Truly value your timetablers. Give them respect. Listen to their advice. Give them allowance time to do their job properly, or embrace assistance from external consultants. Encourage staff to engage in ongoing industry training courses. Treat any costs for this as a sound investment paying real financial rewards, as well as delivering improved educational outcomes. Why not schedule in some discussion time now, and start changing your bottom line!
Chris Cooper is a director of Edval Timetables, and active in Educational Scheduling research. He is also the author of a government accredited textbook. For more information, please visit: www.edval.com.au
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