Composite Classes

composite classes in australian schools.jpg

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


  1. says

    Thank you for such an interesting post (I am a fan of Kathy’s!).

    My eldest starts school next year at a school that organises classes by the VELS levels. (In fact all of the government schools in our district do). I was surprised and very disappointed at first … “back in my day” composites had a stigma (declining numbers, less attention, etc). Of course everything about the wonderful school we have chosen, indicates that it must be a very successful system!

    As a parent I think it can be hard to get your head around your child’s primary schooling experience being different to your own!

  2. says

    I know what you mean about the stigma that was attached to composite classes – it was the same when I went through school. I think the big difference now is that teachers learn about and focus on teaching with an individualised approach. Starting school is such an exciting time!

  3. says

    Annie is in Prep/One this year and was also in Prep/One last year, I think it is brilliant. Last year the grade 1 children were very supportive and in many cases better at helping the Preps than their buddies were. This year Annie has developed so much more self confidence from being a big kid able to help the Preps in their transition to school and their classwork.

    Teachers make a huge impact on child – more so than the class set up. I’ve talked to so many parents of children on the Autism Spectrum about problems and successes at school. It always comes down to the quality of the teacher, a good teacher will work as a team with you to support your child, no matter what the classroom set up.

    The other important factor is a good principal because they influence their staff greatly. Annie’s principal instantly understood why I was requesting Annie be placed in a 1/2 next year and not a 2/3 class despite Annie being at the 2/3 level intellectually. As you blogged composites are great for social and emotional well being of children and that is exactly why we’ve chosen the 1/2 composite.

    I’ve also been really impressed by the 3/4/5 composite class at our school and how well the teachers and students have worked across each of the grade levels.

  4. says

    As a teacher I’ve taught many multi-age groups and as you say, if the split is right there is no difference academically to teaching a straight class. However you split kids there will be academic differences you need to cater for, a straight class doesn’t change that. And a split class gives that older cohort who know how things work and have a chance to act as leaders and mentors. In a straight class you tend to get the same kids doing that every year, this way they all get a turn.
    I also have a situation where my daughter is both comparatively gifted and also socialises better with older children. She’s had trouble making friends in her own peer group, I remember having exactly the same problem at school. I’ll be interested to see how she goes next year when she will have a split class.

  5. says

    I have a daughter in grade 1 who’s in a 1/2 composite this year. It is suiting her very well as she’s advanced in maths and has been able to do more challenging work by being placed in the grade 2 maths group. However, I do have a concern about next year, as the talk is that it’ll be 1/2 grades again, but she’ll be in the grade 2 half. I know it’s not all about academics, I get that, but she is going to have finished the grade 2 maths and literacy work by the end of this year. I do worry that she’ll get bored next year without older children and more advanced work to stimulate her.

    That said, socially I agree that composites can be terrific. Certainly my girl has found it so. Having friendships with older children has expanded her world greatly. Perhaps if she is placed in a 1/2 grade next year, I will simply need to accept that the year will be more one of consolidation and sociability at school for her, and extend her with academic work at home.

    • Marita says

      Kathy I had similar concerns about my daughter doing prep/one again this year. She was doing all grade one work by the end of last year. Our school has solved that problem by getting her to go to grade 2/3 class for literacy on Thursday mornings.

      There is two prep/one classes so some times one teacher takes all the peeps and another takes grade one children.

      I’ve also found GATEways offer fanastic programs for children learning well above their peers.

      • says

        Gateways is great and I think the issue that Kathy raises and you answered so well, just highlights that multiage works best when it is not just a convenience but a dedicated approach by the school and teachers are adequately supported.

  6. Annie says

    My 11 and 9 year old attend a school that prides itself on multi-aging (across VELS levels) and it has been a wonderful experience. They have thrived both socially and academically. As Deb says teachers need to cater for academic differences in ANY class. And as Marita says it is the teacher and, in turn, the support they get from the administrative structure that is really what it is all about. As with all education it needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully. And as parents we need to support as much as we can. I am lucky enough to be able to get into the classroom once a week at a time when one 3/4 class and two 5/6 classes are together split into smaller groups to do maths. This means my Grade 3 gets to do his Maths with a group of 5/6s at his level while I help the less confident kids with work the teacher has set. I think we have 8 or 9 groups. Because the kids are so split through three classes there is no stigma. And my son gets to spend most of his time with his near peer group. It’s perfect. I am also very proud of the way my kids act with younger children away from school, particularly important for my son again as he is the youngest in the family. We particularly asked for him to stay as a Grade 2 in his Prep/1/2 class so that he would have to be ‘big kid’ and mentor. It was terrific for him as he also spent time doing maths with the 3/4s. Peer teaching is so powerful too. I could go on about this topic for hours! PQ my heart goes out to you watching no.2 still having a tough time.

    • says

      I was hoping you would comment Annie! I know that there is a significant difference in the approach at your kids school compared to mine and many others. I think your school has a model that can be used by others to aim for. Thanks for sharing such a positive experience of multi-aging as it is a concept that I feel really allows children to learn at their own pace.

  7. says

    My daughter attends a school that has multi-aged classes and is currently in a Grade 1/2 class. Last year she was in a Prep/1 class and there were 2 other stand alone Prep classes. I think the kids in the Prep/1 class had a huge advantage over the kids in the Prep classes. They were each paired up with a Grade 1 buddy to help them along in the class and in the playground they had a big advantage when they could play with their Grade 1 friends who were already well-aquainted with the school and many of the other children. She settled into school really well and I think her multi-age class was a big factor. Our school only has Grade 1/2, 3/4, 5/6 classes and it seems to work well. I’m really looking forward to my daughter being a Grade 2 in a 1/2 class next year. I think it will do wonders for her confidence. The kids at our school get moved for literacy if their learning level doesn’t match that of the other kids in their class which is a great idea too.

    I have to agree that a teacher plays an enormous role in the success of a child both socially and academically. The teacher creates a culture of learning and social values in his/her class and if it doesn’t suit your child, it can be difficult (not that I’ve experienced this personally yet). The principal is also very important, but I think class size has an enormous effect too. These massive classes of 60 or so students with several teachers in large open areas do my head in. I don’t know if I could learn in that environment as an adult.

    • says

      Each year I am in the school system I learn to love great teachers even more. They make such a difference to my kids education and I think there is currently so much expected of them. It was great to hear your experience Belinda!

  8. says

    I think it is wonderful that your school does such a good job keeping you all informed via parent sessions and having amazing guest speakers like Kathy Walker.

    I’m a big advocate for mixed aged classes. No where else in society to we segregate people on the basis of age, so I’m not sure why they started doing this with schools (except maybe for convenience).

    There are 3 groups at my boys’ school – each with a mix of ages of about 2 – 3 years, and they stay with the same teacher for that same length of time. From a parent’s point of view, nothing but positives eg:
    – great for social development
    – creates a culture of caring
    – kid’s can either zoom ahead, or spend more time consolidating learning and skills depending on their needs. They aren’t expected to all progress at the same pace.
    – relationships develop with different age groups.
    – older kids modelling behaviours for younger kids

    In the “community classes” children of different ages, experiences and abilities work together in small groups and engage in learning activities planned with their teacher. Learning occurs in a variety of surroundings from the whole class to small groups and individual settings. Children work with each other, developing and sharing knowledge, testing theories and reflecting on their learning. Teachers work as facilitators of this social learning process, monitoring group and individual development.

    I thoroughly recommend them!

    • says

      I have always been supportive of multiage classes, but this year’s set up for my son just hasn’t worked. I am hoping with some additional support for the teacher will see a much better term 4 for him.

  9. says

    I teach at a school which has cross-level-composites due to the numbers in each grade. In my grade 4/5, it works perfectly. There is only 7 grade 5s (as that’s the total number in the school) but they fit in perfectly with the 4s. Through the grade, I have abilities ranging from Grade 1 to Grade 6, but I would have that even if I just had the 4s. As the good teacher I am striving to be, I try to teach all children at the level they ARE at (whether above or below) rather than the level they ‘should’ be at.
    I do agree though that a 2/3 composite is unusually difficult – generally speaking Grade 3s are ‘big kids’ while Grade 2s are still ‘little kids’

    • says

      Thanks for an insight from a teacher’s perspective Katie. I think the big kid/little kid issue is the biggest problem for my son. I am looking at this year as a resilience building one!