Mention ‘timetabling’ to any secondary school head or departmental head and they are very likely to blanche. This is because timetabling is a hugely complicated business, involving working out what subject to teach which pupils and when to teach it, where the teaching is to take place and who will be doing the teaching. Puzzling out this four-dimensional jigsaw is further complicated by myriad considerations such as ensuring due focus on ‘core’ subjects such as English, the sciences and mathematics.

Timetabling is so essential, and perhaps hasn’t always been given the consideration it deserves. A call by Tom Sherrington in 2017 to share curriculum* models highlighted the wide variety of timetabling models out there: in 40 schools no two followed the same whole school model. Within these, the timetabling of science lessons is made fiendish by the various science GCSE pathways that exist.

The scientific learned societies (the Association for Science Education (ASE), Institute of Physics, Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry) have been exploring timetable models at GCSE given the multiple routes available, and intertwined challenges that schools face in dealing with a shortage of teachers with individual disciplinary expertise and other constraining factors.**

We will shortly be publishing a study into the variety of timetabling models that are in use, following research we commissioned from Shift Learning in October 2018. We asked the researchers to provide a robust representation of how schools timetable the sciences at GCSE, and insight into the decision making that leads to the adoption of particular timetable models. From a representative sample of 513 schools, both independent and state (type of school, region and Ofsted rating), Shift Learning identified 82 model variations using time and teacher allocation variables.

The research found that:

  • few schools (12%) offered only triple science or only combined science routes to all students.
  • the majority of schools surveyed teach GCSE sciences across 3 years, whereas optional GCSEs are commonly taught across 2 years.
  • the majority of schools reported that teachers are required to teach outside their disciplinary expertise.

This research formed the backbone of this year’s Talking Science debate at the ASE’s annual conference at the University of Birmingham. The debate, chaired by Professor David Read (University of Southampton), considered the variety of timetabling models in the sciences at GCSE, decisions made by schools and the constraints within which they have to work when determining routes to offer in the sciences and allocation of teachers, and as Head of Education Policy at the Royal Society of Biology I presented on behalf of the learned societies.

My fellow panellists Lucy Austin (Subject Specialist Leader for Chemistry, Inspiration Trust), Tim Mullen-Furness (Assistant Head Teacher, Cardinal Griffin Catholic College) and Lucy Rimmington (Head of Science curriculum, Ark) discussed their own experiences in timetabling and working within the constraints of the system, trying to ensure all students are served well by the routes offered in the sciences.

While initial findings from this research were discussed at the debate, the learned societies intend to publish Shift Learning’s full report in the coming weeks. For more information on the research, keep an eye on information from the Association for Science Education, Institute of PhysicsRoyal Society, Royal Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry as we further interrogate the data and consider policy implications.



*It is worth noting that while Tom Sherrington refers to ’curriculum models’ throughout this blog and our future report we instead refer to ‘timetabling models’. Curriculum is a word with a variety of meanings in the education sector: for example, senior management in secondary schools may consider curriculum as the range of subjects and the time allocated to each, while Ofsted have begun to discuss curriculum intent, implementation and impact, and as professional subject bodies we tend to consider curriculum within our individual disciplines.

** The learned societies meet regularly to discuss education policy and consider issues and solutions which we can support through policy messaging and research. Our 2014 report The sciences at key stage 4: time for a re-think? (PDF) considered the case for a single route in the sciences and in Mary Seabrook’s 2016 blog Is GCSE Triple Science making the STEM skills gap wider? researchers detailed findings from their longitudinal research. Last year’s Talking Science debate GCSE options – an illusion of choice? took a critical look at the multiple routes available to students to study the sciences at ages 14-16 (key stage 4) and asked whether or not a single route is best.

  • Keith Johnson

    Strictly speaking the correct terminology would be neither ‘curriculum model’ nor ‘timetabling model’ but ‘Curriculum Diagram’ which has long been (40 years) the accepted way of showing the curricular structure of a school.
    Examples are shown at:
    and in Chapter 2 of ‘The Timetabler’s CookBook’:

    It’s a great shame that Tom Sherrington did not use this format as it means that much of the information in the 40 models that he collected is uncertain and ambiguous.
    Without being clear whether subjects are grouped in Blocks or not (and if so, knowing whether those Blocks are ‘simple’, or ‘container’, or ‘consistently-setted’) little can be said about whether they can be scheduled into a working timetable.

    Whether or not a structure (model) can be timetabled in the real world depends upon:
    –the structure (as above),
    –the staffing of that structure (because teachers can never be in two places at the same time).

    Other factors are involved (eg. the structure of the school day, the positions of breaks and lunches; the availability of rooms, especially labs; etc) but those are the two crucial ones.

    With that information there are a number of timetabling feasibility tests that can be applied. And the Quality of the timetable can be considered (for example, how many students have split teaching, eg. 2 or more teachers for Biology).

    Without that information I think the project is limited to statistics such as the numbers offering triple science.

    Keith Johnson