Teaching timetable – why we ditched the straightjacket
From stress and constraint to Curriculum K – how Ben Levinson’s school made fluid learning work
- by Ben Levinson
Timetables… love them? Hate them? Find them incredibly stressful? Wouldn’t be without them?
If you started this conversation in any staff room across the country, I’d suggest you’d get the full spectrum of opinions – we certainly did.
Over the past year, we’ve been trialling a far more flexible approach to timetables at Kensington Primary School, and I wanted to share our experience with you.
Maybe it’s best to start with why we decided to do this. At Kensington, we’ve always believed passionately in empowering our incredibly skilled team.
Teaching is one of the most over-monitored professions, and as a school with wellbeing at its heart, we knew that this over-monitoring caused untold stress.
We knew the importance of autonomy for wellbeing, yes, but also to get the best from people.
21st century curriculum
Teaching is not a one-size-fits-all job. Children are different. Teachers are different. Schools are different.
Giving people freedom to decide how they teach is just common sense. So, we removed many of the barriers.
Gone were, ‘You must have three success criteria, two of which have to be generated by the children’, and in came the freedom and flexibility to do what you felt was best.
Some learning benefits from success criteria. Some doesn’t. Sometimes children generating the criteria is great and sometimes it isn’t.
We supported our teams – particularly those starting out in the profession – but we also trusted them to do what was right for their children because they know them best.
While we were doing this, we were also hard at work creating a brand-new curriculum. (This was before the 2019 EIF and the pandemic.)
Our experience and reflections, along with so many conversations we were having, had led us to realise the curriculum as it stood was not fit for purpose.
A mental and physical health crisis; the rapidly changing world (over 50 per cent of current jobs won’t exist by 2030); feedback from businesses that children had the academic qualifications but not the skills for 21st century life; a profession on its knees, etc, etc. And this was all pre-Covid! It was clear something needed to change.
Our response to this was Curriculum K: a curriculum that balances academic learning with health, communication and culture; that provides children with what they need to thrive in the 21st century; and that empowers our team to deliver what they know is needed for their classes.
One of the drivers for Curriculum K was the overcrowded timetable and the constant feeling that we were repeatedly ramming a round peg into a far-too-small square hole.
Let me briefly transport you back to my NQT year. There I was, sat in my classroom, looking at the number of hours I was expected to teach of each subject and looking at my blank timetable, and realising that it didn’t fit.
Don’t worry, I was told, everyone knows that, we just have to put it in to tick the box!
That’s even before the trips, performances, visitors and everything else that goes on threw it completely off track.
Freedom for teachers
But with Curriculum K, we were in a position where each subject was of equal importance; we had removed enough content that it was achievable in the time available, and we had a desire to give our teachers the freedom to make the best decisions for the children (and themselves) in order to maximise learning.
Initially, the timetable was changed so that we no longer had maths and English in the morning.
Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. But children were just as likely to start the day with an emotional health or communication lesson as English.
As we continued to evolve our curriculum and our approaches, it increasingly became counterintuitive to have fixed times for specific lessons.
As part of our drive to improve the quality of education and reduce workload, we stopped marking in favour of teachers spending more time and energy on assessment for learning (AfL).
As teachers focused on this more, it became increasingly clear that they needed greater freedom to adapt the curriculum.
If children struggled in maths that day, time would need to be found to revisit the subject, but if they are flying in culture, it’s perfectly OK to move on quickly.
But this was still happening within defined lesson times. What if teachers had freedom to totally change what they were teaching on any given day or week so that it matched the needs of their children?
So, we trialled it in Y3 and 4. It was optional for teachers and we gave them freedom over how they did it.
Some still wanted a timetable for security but knew they could adapt it. Others got a blank timetable every Friday and mapped out the week ahead.
Some chose to tweak as they went, based on their assessment. We checked in with them regularly to see how it was going and to get feedback.
All six Y3 and 4 teachers decided very quickly they wanted to be part of it. Before too long, Y2 had also come and asked to get involved.
In September, all teachers will be taking this approach. (Although it will remain optional and they will have freedom over how they implement it.)
The results? Learning is far more fluid. Teachers are focused on the needs of their children and adapting what they are teaching to respond to them.
Interestingly, this is also now working for content. How many of us have looked in horror at the English lesson we have to teach on a Wednesday after swimming, or a history lesson with lots of heavy content on a Friday afternoon?
Teachers are now adapting their timings to meet the needs of children. This flexibility is key because they are all different.
One class might be great at working together after lunch while another is best first thing in the morning, for example.
There are also far more opportunities for teachers to ensure learning has been remembered and to adapt their planning so that defined end points are met.
Finally, just the fact that teachers know they can change their timetables has had a massive impact on wellbeing.
It is just another area of stress for teachers, knowing they have to squeeze learning into a defined box.
Learning doesn’t often happen as a perfectly-formed, uniform process, so why would we try to make it this way?
Of course, there are some challenges. We have limited space for our physical health lessons so time in the hall and playground is timetabled and has to be adhered to.
We need to work with some of our SEND children, particularly those who are autistic, so that the changes in routine don’t cause them distress.
In this case, we have found that talking them through the day or week as applicable has been more than sufficient to help them process any changes and enable them to engage fully.
We will continue to reflect on and refine the approach but I cannot see us going back to the timetable straitjacket.
Freedom has brought so many benefits for our children and team. But the truth? Your best teachers are already doing this.
And that timetable stapled to their door? A work of fiction.