Days in the Life of ICFP: Comparing notes

In this series of blogs, ASCL consultant Sam Ellis outlines aspects of ICFP and provides spreadsheets that can be developed by users to suit their own situation. This is his third blog in the series.

Click on the links to read his other blogs:
Part One: Reality dawns
Part Two: I need to use the contact ratio

Comparing Notes
Somewhere back in the mists of the 1980s, a friend who also was involved in writing a school timetable suggested we compared curriculum notes. I suppose we were doing what you would now call benchmarking which is a key strategy in ICFP. In those simpler days we were just meeting up for a few beers! The problem was her school’s timetable cycle was 25 periods and my school’s was 30. 

My friend suggested we could compare like by using the ideas described in Keith Johnson’s 1980 book Timetabling - A Timetabler’s Cookbook in terms of ‘curriculum units’, ‘basic’, ‘bonus’ and ‘relative bonus’. She was correct to suggest this would work but I am sorry to say I kicked it into touch immediately. To my way of thinking, it was, as my mother would have said, ‘A long way round for a short cut.’ After two pints of bitter and some scribbled sums on scraps of paper, my friend was converted and we compared notes in a much simpler way. 

I am not going to bore on about curriculum units, basic, bonus and relative bonus, I find the topics less interesting than a repeat of Midsomer Murders and as much use as a chocolate fireguard! 

Same words, different meanings
The bottom line is that all this stuff just describes teacher time in the timetable and supports comparing timetables between different schools. Some aspects have been adapted as ICFP metrics by some users. My view is that to do that is more complicated than it needs to be and unnecessarily obscure. It only works for Years 7 to 11 and uses words that have a different meaning in everyday speech. These are key problems for mutual understanding. 

The term ‘basic’ is the name for a reference level, like sea level is used for measuring land heights. The everyday meaning of ‘basic’ - some sort of fundamental allocation - has nothing whatsoever to do with its curriculum use! Similarly, ‘bonus’ means ‘time difference’ and is absolutely not a positive benefit as in everyday speech. Unfortunately, some current users think or even zealously believe the opposite to be true.

I find that people tend to make sense of the world as they first see it. This is true of the ‘basic and bonus’ model so misunderstanding is widespread as a result of the difference between technical and everyday speech. Some school leaders have told me, with the authority of a politician selling rocking horse droppings, that the terms absolutely do have their everyday meanings. It is always a problem when people do not read the instructions because they already know what they should be!

I prefer simpler and less confusing ways of comparing teacher time in the timetable when timetable cycles and pupil number differ. This is the route Kath and I took one evening in the St John’s on Queens Road in Hull. Basically (no pun intended), you work out the pupil to teacher ratio in the timetable. That only requires three numbers: the pupil roll, the number of periods in the timetable cycle and the teacher periods allocated to the timetable. You multiply the first two together and divide the answer by the third number and, hey presto, you get the pupil to teacher ratio in the timetable.

Kath was outstanding at doing homework so she arrived at the St John’s having written out her curriculum sums in the ‘basic and bonus’ form including ‘curriculum units’. This system might as well be something from an Enigma machine as far as I am concerned. Kath’s had produced a bottom line something like ‘a relative bonus of 17% in the main school’. My point was that whilst it sounded impressive, I had no idea what it meant on the ground. 

Keeping it simple
I showed her how we could convert it to something more visual with a simple sum. We added the 17 to 100 to get 117 then divided that into 2,700 to get about 23 as the answer. 23 was the number of pupils per teacher in the timetable. I could imagine 23 kids in a classroom with one teacher much better than I could grasp the meaning of 17% relative curriculum bonus.

My Friday afternoon bottom set maths group contained 23 of the school’s top scallies; I knew exactly what a class of 23 pupils meant! The pupil to teacher ratio in the timetable is called in the trade, the average class size. For reference, the comparable average in my school was closer to 24 meaning I had less teacher time on my timetable in the main school than Kath did. There was a lot more detail than that to discuss, including the fact that we both had sixth form numbers to deal with, but I’ll come to that in another blog.

The further detail I have hinted at is in an analysis we called ‘Staff Deployment’ at the time. This is now an absolute cornerstone of ICFP work. I now call this Teaching Deployment Analysis, or just Deployment Analysis as it only concerns teacher time. It does not include employees such as caretakers, admin staff, and educational support staff. Deployment is the essential analysis and planning tool and will feature heavily in future blogs.

The secret for me is to apply Occam’s razor: ‘things should not be multiplied beyond necessity’; if you have got the average class size you don’t need curriculum units, bonus, basic or relative bonus no matter how much you like the sound of them!

The spreadsheet with this blog anticipates future blogs with a simplified example of a deployment analysis and some notes for anyone who wants to mess around with the idea in their own school. It also illustrates some aspects and meaning of basic, bonus and curriculum units for anyone who may be interested. 

Next time: Deployment Analysis and statistical clutter! 

Sam will be co-leading our series of one-day workshops Implementing Integrated Curriculum and Financial Planning (ICFP) in your school or MAT: A practical workshop on 23 January 2020 in London. You may also be interested in our Making It Count: Understanding and using curriculum metrics for primary and secondary which Sam co-leads with ASCL Funding Specialist Julia Harden

Posted: 26/11/2019 11:51:19