By Chris Cooper.
Schools continue to manage staffing as they have always done: allocations are set by the deputy principal or faculty heads. Staffing is sensitive, or even precious. There is a lot at stake and politics to go with it. Staffing is one of the largest expenses in a school and, educationally, the most influential. It is important to get the best possible staffing for the school for financial and also educational reasons. But is your method of staffing the school now ‘too precious’?
Schools often move with the agility of a large oil tanker. Change is undeniably difficult. Entrenched ideas and processes are ingrained in corporate culture, and there are reasons for this in some cases. Why fix what isn’t broken? Change can be destabilising.
In the case of new staffing practices though, with computers or outsourced assistance, the benefits of change can be incredible.
Legacy Practices: Staff To A Matrix
Traditionally, the deputy advises what classes will be running in the timetable and prepares a draft timetable matrix of classes needing staff. Faculty heads of department (HODs) then set the staffing of each class according to their desires. Problems may arise, pushing the faculty head to negotiate some changes to the matrix itself to accommodate staffing needs but it can go round in circles. What suits one faculty may not suit another. Compromise is inevitable.
It is a time-consuming process, but the least satisfactory aspect is the forcing of faculty heads to staff to a matrix, greatly limiting their staffing options.
Something Doesn’t Fit – Who Else Can We Use?
Most schools adopt the view that the staffing IS set by the HODs, who know their team closely. To regard these as staffing ‘requests’ instead of ‘assignments’ may offend those who feel they have a right to decide how staff are allocated, as they are ‘in charge’ of that department.
Timetables only work when everything fits and can’t work with too many fixed requirements. Invariably someone doesn’t fit. The traditional approach has the timetabler contact the HOD to explain the problem and to ask for alternative staffing. The HOD will consider the request, provide an answer, and the timetabler moves to the next problem. This cycle can often repeat a dozen times in a big school, each cycle taking valuable time to communicate.
Resolving instances where staffing doesn’t fit, and changes are manually determined, takes time. Each is built on top of the other in a sequential, linear manner. It may require ten staffing changes to complete a timetable, but which ones are really needed? With deeper oversight, perhaps not all changes would have been necessary.
Towards the end of the process, so much human time has been invested in the one timetable, that last minute changes are often poor choices. Just getting the timetable done becomes a higher priority to getting it done with best staffing. It is impossible to re-do everything at this late stage, in order to cater to something that has just now become evident – or is it?
Solution #1: Computerised Staffing
Ask schools to consider computerised staffing assignments, and they will often advise this would not work in their school as their staffing is too important, too precious to trust to computers. This thinking is now outdated, along with the belief that the earth is flat, or that caller ID on phones would be a terrible privacy intrusion. Over time, people come to realise and learn that things may not be quite as they first thought.
It is easy to illustrate that the use of software can deliver BETTER staffing than can be achieved manually, not only on financial grounds but, far more importantly, on educational grounds.
It is important to realise that computers are neither taking the job away nor taking responsibility for the task. The software is merely a tool to assist the process. It can offer suggestions and can often do a great job, quickly. If the user tells it where and why it got things wrong, the results improve instantly, and very soon they exceed what could be achieved manually.
Some may say “I’ve tried auto-staffing and it didn’t work”. As with other scheduling tasks, you need advanced software. The right tools, used in the right way, can work extremely well.
Staffing a school manually involves a lot of people for a long time. Good software can do it in 60 seconds. But it is the quality rather than the speed that is the key to a good solution. Computerised staffing is an iterative process: first, feed in knowledge of staff skills, HOD staffing preferences, any days off required, staff loads etc. are entered, then auto-staff and see where the computer got it wrong. Any errors or omissions in your specifications are soon identified so that the process can be repeated as requirements are tuned.
It is soon easy to conduct what-if analyses on a range of alternatives – for example: Can we add an extra core class? Or: hire an extra part timer who can teach French? Computerised staffing quickly becomes invaluable to the school not only due to the speed or flexibility but primarily because, when used as a tool, it enables better educational quality in staffing arrangements.
Solution #2: Consultant Assistance
If your son asked for help building a cubby house would you ask for help? What about if your wife asked you to build a second storey on the house? Would you do it yourself, or consider contracting professional builders?
Timetablers have worked in few schools, with little, or no access to conventions or professional development in this area. A professional timetable consultant, however, may have scheduled hundreds of different schools, across different states, and certainly across the different state/Catholic/independent school sectors, giving them a diverse experience of problems and solutions.
Staff are aware of their own school-specific issues needing to be solved. By engaging with a consultant, the school can be shown creative solutions to problems, or even to problems they were not aware existed. Working collaboratively, new structures and solutions can be considered, which improve staffing in the school.
Changes to curriculum delivery, and managing the scheduling technology for these, can be very time-consuming. How many courses are you now delivering remotely, or sharing with a neighbouring school? Do you share rooms for some small classes, or reconfigure their sizes with room dividers? How are you scheduling your flexible learning spaces that have three teachers and 60 students together? Are you getting best use of the PC lab now most students have personal laptops?
In a fast changing world, timetabling teams in schools struggle to keep up with corporate knowledge. Failure to keep up means lost opportunity. The task may get done, but the cost may be high in financial terms, personal time and educational quality.
Case Study: Warilla High School
With 1200+ students, Warilla is a large school. Lower than expected enrolments for 2012 meant their completed timetable needed significant changes, as they were forced to reduce staffing for term 2. Many state schools are faced with this problem at the start of each school year, as they can only estimate their enrolments at the end of the previous year.
Warilla needed to cut a few full-time teachers to accommodate their adjusted staffing budget. This required merging several smaller classes. They also felt they needed to collapse one entire year 10 core class – something they were particularly reluctant to do.
Warilla elected to outsource their major term 2 staffing changes. While capable of doing this themselves, they felt an expert could provide a better quality solution. They contacted a consultant, who, within the space of one day, had interviewed the head teachers, harvested the relevant timetable knowledge and then worked collaboratively with the school to rebuild their term 2 timetable.
The school thought the result was incredible. After making the necessary staff alternations, the timetable was dynamically adjusted on the spot. Like many NSW state schools, Warilla High School had a lot of split classes, where two teachers jointly teach a class to ‘balance loads to zero’. Warilla originally had 80 split classes but, by the end of the one day of timetable adjustment, this was reduced to 19 and the quality of their staffing actually increased in several other areas too. The Edval consultant advised against collapsing the year 10 class and showed how this was possible. The educational impact to this school was tangible and the executive at Warilla were amazed. Their decision to outsource staffing adjustments, produced educational benefits they had not dreamed possible.
This is not an isolated case. A week later Gymea Technology High School was also amazed when another consultant did a similar, successful staffing makeover for term 2, again in a single day, and again far better than the school had expected.
You may be surprised at how many schools use computerised tools, or external consultants, to aid their staffing assignments or changes. These are primarily used internally, so it is not ‘visible’ within the educational community.
Ask yourself – is retaining your legacy staffing practices in your school more important than improving the quality of your staffing through use of new technology and methods? The cost of retaining the status quo may be much higher than you think!
Chris Cooper is an expert in school administration software, and is actively involved in educational scheduling research. He has also published a government accredited textbook. www.edval.com.au
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