Monday, 15 August 2011

20 Minute 'Lessons' - the key to unlocking the timetable?

How a school chooses to use the limited time that available to it says much about its philosophy. 'Time' is perhaps the most important scarce resource. What a school really stands for is seen most clearly in the decisions it makes about what is compulsory and what is optional; in the relative time allocation to each subject at each Key Stage; and in the balance between the academic, co-curricular and community activities.

Given our freedom from the National Curriculum and the level of competition between our schools, these debates and discussions are particularly important for those of us who work in the Independent Sector.

Here at Berkhamsted, this term marks the launch of our new structure to the week which is the result of a two-year review and rethink of the curriculum and timetable. The great driver for this change is that we wanted to put in place an extensive and structured co-curricular programme that would be delivered within the school day - in addition to our before and after-school programmes. The challenge was how to create space for an extended lunchtime without having a detrimental impact on academic teaching contact time.

Our solution is innovative and, to my knowledge, is original: we have divided the whole week into 20 minute units of time. Every activity between 0900 and 1620, starts and finishes on the hour, 20 past the hour, or 20 to the hour.

Structuring the timetable in this way provides enormous flexibility. Not only can lessons be 40, 60, 80 or even 100 minutes long, but it is possible for KS3 to have 60 minute lessons and KS4 and KS5 to have 80 minute lessons. [We don't actually have any 20 minute lessons.]

One of the greatest challenges that faces anyone developing a Secondary curriculum is the 'bottle neck' of Year 9, when it is desirable that pupils have regular lessons in every subject in the curriculum prior to making their GCSE options. Many subjects need double lessons [Art, Music, Drama, DT, Science - for practicals]. For schools with a rigid 35 or 40 minute lesson structure this means devoting 70-80 minutes to each subject - which simply does not fit. However, with the 20 minutes unit structure, because it is possible to deliver a meaningful 60 minute practical lesson at KS3, you can to fit a greater number of lessons into the school week.

One downside, if indeed it is that, is that morning break and lunchtimes don't always fall at exactly the same time. This may make for a more dislocated school community - especially for the teaching staff who will also not have a shared break-time. However, there are the obvious advantages of a more efficient, staggered access to dining and other facilities.

There are a number of unique features of Berkhamsted that make this approach particularly attractive. The "diamond" structure of the School poses us a number of challenges: our boys 11-16 and girls 11-16 are taught separately on two sites some half a mile apart. The sixth form and the teaching staff have to move between the site. The 20 minute timetable allows for a more efficient transfer between campuses without wasting lesson time - we have achieved this by the sixth form having two 20 minute breaks, rather than one 40 minute break. Furthermore, most staff tend to be based on one or other campus means that that it is not possible for staff to meet daily at break anyway, so the timetable changes will have less of an impact at Berkhamsted than it would perhaps have in other schools.

I would like to pay tribute to Mr Will Gunary and his timetabling team, who took an idea and made it reality.

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