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Composite Classes

This is the first in a series of posts that I will be writing on Preparing For School. Now when I say preparing for school, I want to point out that I really believe that each year in a child’s life is unique and deserves to be celebrated and experienced for what it is. Kinder shouldn’t spent preparing for school. Kinder is kinder and should be a space for play based exploration. I don’t believe primary school children need to do homework to prepare them for doing homework in secondary school. The preparation I am focusing on is primarily for parents and what you can do be prepared for the changes that come with entering the world of school.

I have three children in primary school and one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to make sure that you have an understanding of what goes on at your kids school and in particular in their classes. Be involved in whatever capacity you can. I have been unable to do class room helper this year and I have really missed getting to know the children and having a feel for the work they are undertaking. I have had the opportunity to attend a number of great parent sessions that have been put on by the school though and have learned new strategies and information that assists me with my school aged kids.

One of them was only a few nights ago and was a session by Kathy Walker which covered how teachers approach learning in the classroom, more specifically in composite classes. (The school that my children attend has always ran with composite classes.) Regular readers of the blog will know that I link to Kathy’s website and books frequently and respect her approach to children’s education. With Kathy’s permission, I will share some of the key information she discussed on composite classes.

Multi-age Classes

Multiage classes refer to classes that are set up to include children from more than one grade. Kathy was very open and honest in her talk and stated that when asked to talk on the topic of composites she declines 50% of invitations. Kathy only accepts to talk at schools were they deliberately choose to place children in classes that combine grades and have a philosophy of doing so regardless of the number of students at the school. Invitations to talk on composites at schools where composites are simply number driven and inconsistent across the years will be declined.

Multi-age classes have been around for over 80 years in Australia and it was the original form of education the 1800s. Straight grades came about as they were simpler to administer. In the early 1990s only 30% of schools in Australia had multi-aged classes. That figure has now grown to 70% today. The current approach to teaching both in the multi-age and straight classrooms aims to deliver child centred learning – an emphasis to teaching to the level of each child.

Latest research on the impact of multi- age shows that:

  • By the end of Grade 6, along the bell curve there is no statistically significant difference between students from multi-age or straight classes in terms of academic performance.
  • But in results for social indicators like tolerance of others, showing empathy, adaptability there was a positive statistically significant difference for children who had been taught in multi-age classrooms.

What Parents Think Of Multi-age / Composite Classes

Kathy spoke about how parents can get very edgy when it comes to having their child in a composite class and discussed the most common concerns held by parents:

  • It is a special year for preps, it is more special by themselves – It is actually an easier transition for new preps if there is children in the class who already know the routines and the teacher. The older children have the opportunity to nurture the younger ones.
  • It is a special year for Grade 6, they should be on their own -There is usually still some special activities that are only for Grade 6 children. (At our school they still have their own windcheater, they run the assemblies, school leader roles etc)
  • Limits my child’s friendship groups – Children don’t make distinctions based on age.

My Opinion On Multi-age / Composite Classes

My eldest son went to a creche that was based on family grouping, he then went to a Montessori preschool which is multi-age kinder from 3 – 6 years old. We have been at our current school with composite classes for the last five years and where children have generally stayed with the same teacher for two years. I like composites when they flow naturally across the Victorian Essential Learning Standards(Foundation, then 1 – 10. Click on the levels tab in the navigation bar) and when the classes are well balanced as they do offer excellent social opportunities for the children.

This year I have a child who is in grade 3 in a 2/3 class. I have found this composite set up to be less than optimal. Grade 3 is a year where primary kids move out of junior primary into the upper years. My son has felt left behind his peer group as there are also two other 3/4 classes. This is compounded by only having a very small peer group of grade 3 boys in his class. Combined with other issues that has seen the grade 3’s in this class treated differently to the grade 3’s in the other classes, it has been by far the toughest year for me as a school parent. It is incredibly difficult to see your child unhappy at school.

Kathy Walker answered many questions after her talk and I asked for her opinion on a 2/3 composite class and she stated that the 2/3 set up is challenging, it requires teachers to have additional support and a deeper level of thought. So drawing back to my point earlier, I am being involved at my kids school and have had a number of discussions with my son’s teacher and the principal and will keep doing so to try and achieve better outcomes.

But overall, my experience in the school system has shown me that the teacher is still by far the biggest factor on educational achievement, rather than the whether my child is the oldest or youngest in the class.

What has your experience with composites been?

Further Reading

Effects of multigrade classes on student progress in literacy and numeracy: Quantitative evidence and perceptions of teachers and school leaders
V. Jean Russell, Kenneth J. Rowe and Peter W. Hill
Centre for Applied Educational Research
Faculty of Education, The University of Melbourne

Multi-age Classes In New South Wales (PDF Download)
NSW Department of Education and Training
Curriculum Directorate