This webinar was originally published by Arbor.

With planning arrangements and timetabling at the top of school leaders’ minds right now, we invited expert timetabler and curriculum planner Jan Hetherington to join our webinar series “Adapting to Change” to share her solutions for September. 

Jan is Vice Principal and Specialist Leader of Education for Curriculum Leadership at Wykham Park Academy, a secondary school which is part of the 15-school Aspirations Academies Trust. As well as developing the timetable for her school, she also coaches senior leaders across other trusts on how to create more effective timetables.

Jan shared with us some of the plans Wykham Park Academy is putting in place to keep students socially-distanced and to help maintain teaching and learning standards in September. She explained that above all, she wants to ensure that the new arrangements don’t sacrifice students’ full learning experience.

You can read Jan’s conversation with Arbor’s CEO James Weatherill below.

You’ve said that “Timetabling is more than an annual exercise. It defines the experience students get.” Could you explain that?

What I mean by that is students need a variety of rhythms across the school day and week to get the highest quality experience. The right timetable should put together the right groups of students with the right teachers. Every lesson slot has a currency; some are lower value than others, for example nobody wants Friday Period 5, or Monday Period 1. Staff need to appreciate that if they get any of those lower value slots, they’re going to have different pedagogical challenges. The timetable should also be suited to the age of the students. I worked once with a MAT which completely restructured their day based on teenage sleep patterns with a staggered day. 

How did you adjust your timetable and learning provision during Covid-19?

As we went into lockdown, we decided that KS3 would have four lessons a day – English, Maths, Science and Humanities – and Year 10&11’s would have five lessons a day. We didn’t synchronise these in the school timetable, we simply uploaded them onto Google Classroom. Our staff skill set has grown exponentially in terms of using online platforms. We had been using Google Classroom already for about a year for setting homework, but we’ve had to learn rapidly over the last few months how to use it for much more. 

At first, when we didn’t know how long school closures would last, we wanted to keep a normal lesson format as far as possible. But after Half-Term, we shifted to project-based work for KS3. Year 10 moved away from new learning into consolidatory learning, and for Year 11 we put on four lessons a day only to support those students who were at risk of achieving a 4 or above. 

The quality of pre-recorded teaching and learning was mixed at first, so we started to give live lessons to KS5. We chose not to do this for the rest of the school due in part to union advice, plus we wanted to protect staff given potential safeguarding issues and uncertainty around best practice. Instead teachers uploaded pre-recorded lessons – some with audio, some with video. 

What are the key lessons you learned about how to engage students with online learning?

A key lesson was wrongly assuming that simply uploading a Powerpoint will do. We quickly realised that students need more support; they need a full learning experience with learning modelled by the teacher. For example, we started to use videos showing the teacher writing or demonstrating. It’s also important in pre-recorded lessons that the teacher still engages with the students personally, for instance calling out student names as though they were live in the classroom. 

What are your timetabling plans for September? 

We’re going to use the same lesson timetable we would have used in the normal course of events. The location of lessons might change but the timings won’t. We’re also going to offer a full curriculum. This is because we want to keep things as normal as possible in terms of what is being taught in order to give students’ the richest experience possible. We worry that if they had only a “partial diet” they might easily disengage. We also don’t want to stagger lesson start and end times too much because this would lead to unsupervised time. 

How will you keep students apart? 

We’re going to split the student body into different physical zones, with their own entrance exit and toilets. On the Banbury Aspirations Campus (which contains an Academy, a Studio School and a Sixth Form), we have the unique advantage of a massive site with lots of different buildings housing lots of different specialist areas,  so this makes it easier for us to keep students apart. 

We’ve got the potential for three different entrances into the school site. Students will have their own route to their zone, and within the zones, they’ll be able to move around into new spaces in order to maintain a rich and varied school day. KS3 will be kept in a “bubble within a bubble”, having all their lessons in one classroom. They’ll only leave their zone as a class to do specialised activities like Drama. KS4 will be zoned as a Year Group “bubble” so all their lessons will be in that zone unless they move for specialist activities. 

How will dining work?

We’re going to have a reduced menu and students will place an order, then pick it up and go. We’ve got two dining room spaces and we’ll have staggered slots so two “bubbles” can use the room but be separated by time slots. We’re going to continue the breakfast clubs we run for disadvantaged students by keeping them in a “bubble” with each other.

What about cleaning?

We’re still waiting for advice from the Government on what “enhanced cleaning” means. In the meantime, Headteachers are looking at what pubs and restaurants are doing right now to inform our plans. IT and Food Tech rooms are tricky because they’re used by every Year group and they’re available to book. The plan is to timetable them so there’s at least one lesson period in-between usage so we can clean down surfaces before the next group of students. We’re also going to limit use of those rooms to practical lessons, keeping theory based lessons elsewhere. Cleaning is of course going to be a big expense. We’re looking to the trust to support with that.

What about breaks?

Breaks are easier because students will use the outdoor spaces within their zones. We won’t be serving food at break, but students are welcome to bring their own break time food. We will be offering snacks and keeping an eye on known vulnerable students to make sure they are fed.

What is your advice to schools that don’t have the capacity or space you do?

I’d recommend staggering lesson times and movement times. Also assess what size of “bubble” you’re comfortable with. Some schools I’ve heard of are doing Key Stage “bubbles” which can include 600 students! Some are using online platforms to teach different lessons to classes that stay in one room. 

What’s your attitude to a “catch-up” curriculum?

On his blog recently, James Duran gives a range of options for Teachers to consider to balance “catch-up” content and new material. We’re planning a parallel approach of new learning with some revision along the way. We’ll review the content and progress regularly, and define “threshold” concepts within the curriculum students need to understand to move forward.

What are your fallbacks and contingency plans?

We plan to make all lessons digitally accessible if needed, making use of the online platform skills staff have learned. We’ve found pre-recorded videos are not just convenient but have the additional benefit that students can pause and rewind which can actually help to reinforce learning. If there’s another lockdown, we’re going to commit to doing live digital lessons because we don’t want to sacrifice the face-to-face element again going forward. 

What does quality online learning look like and how will you guarantee it going forward?

We’re still working out our quality assurance processes. Some schools have been doing live lesson evaluations but we don’t want to do that. In September, we’ll first of all carry out an audit of the technology students have at home to avoid the situation we’ve had where 600 students had to have paper lesson packs because they couldn’t get online. We’ll also do a RAG rating so we’re taking into consideration student preference and learning style. 

We’re going to put a digital learning policy in place so students know what we expect of them. In terms of teaching, we expect the same high quality as in the classroom. We want to maintain the learning structure we use normally, with a balance between guided practice and independent practice. 

The structure will look like this:

1. Live guided practice: 15 mins or more (live or recorded) where teachers model what they want from students. We’ll encourage the use of audio for this, rather than video, because we know that audio doesn’t split students’ attention in the same way video can

2. Live Q&A and dialogue, encouraging peer interactivity,

3. Independent offline practice, then students upload the work they’ve achieved

We also want to encourage a variety of different learning experiences (e.g. app-based and flip learning). In terms of assessment, we’re still working this out and looking into a system that allows live online assessment. We’ll definitely be including low stakes testing (e.g. using Kahoot). We’re also looking into functionality which allows students to put their work up on the screen rather than asking the teacher to come over and have a look. 

To what extent do you think changes next Term will affect students’ experience? 

If you look at the research after the 2011 earthquake and lockdown in New Zealand, it showed that students did better than expected when they returned. John Hattie (2020) says rather than focusing on “gaps” and content students have “missed”, you should focus rather on what students actually need. 

In this vein, we’re not expecting the new arrangements to have a huge effect on students because they’re going to be in a group that’s good for their learning and they’ll be with the right teacher. The sequence of learning may change over the year but they’ll achieve it all by the end of the year.