A Class of Their Own

A Class of Their Own

A class of their own

December 5, 2003 / / Print this article
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Flexible ... principal Bill Bird with year 5 and 6 students in a composite class at Croydon Park Public School.Photo: Peter Morris

Don't panic if your child is being put into a composite class. They are a far cry from the ones you remember from the 1970s. In fact, grouping different aged children together can be great for their education, writes Linda Doherty.

At Croydon Park Public School, half of the 13 classes are composites and some teachers so enjoy instructing children of different ages that they lobby to teach them. The principal, Bill Bird, organises the classes this way - as do many schools - because of uneven numbers of students in different years.

But composite classes are not considered a second-best option at the school. Bird appreciates the flexibility, the educational benefits and the intangible extras of composite classes.

"The students learn from each other. Like it or not, kids communicate better with kids than adults do. We encourage that," he says. "We can break into small groups within the composites so children can get a brief from the teacher, do their research together on the internet and work semi-autonomously."

At his previous school, Darlinghurst Public, he taught a composite year 4, 5 and 6 class, finding "no evidence at all" that student results suffered. "The children who needed help got it. Those who excelled went off to selective schools and no child was disadvantaged," he says.

At St Gertrude's Catholic School in Smithfield, there are no composite classes. Students are instead grouped by age, according to their literacy levels, with reading teachers and aides complementing the classroom teacher.

"We want to set up opportunities for every single student to achieve," says the principal, Sharyn Dickerson.

Students are assessed on their English language skills at the beginning of the year, with those "more able" put into classes of about 30 children. Those who need intensive help with literacy go into classes with as few as eight children.

Dickerson does not favour composite classes, because the age range - of up to four years - brings different levels of maturity "that limits the type of experience" students could have.

"To teach a composite class, you have to be an extremely talented teacher to work across a number of [curriculum] stages," she says.

These are just two examples of the different ways schools group students as they move away from "teaching to the middle" of the class to a focus on students' individual learning needs regardless of their age.

Today's composite class is a sophisticated descendant of the 1970s model where the teacher did maths for one hour with "third grade" and moved to the other side of the room to teach "fourth grade". But with schools now forming classes for next year, many will be composites and the term is still a dirty word for suspicious parents.

After a generation of these mixed-age classes - commonly called multi-age and sometimes family classes - parents' preference is still for their children to be taught with others of the same age. This, after all, was how most parents were educated.

"I think parents like the norm," says Brother Kelvin Canavan, executive director of Sydney Archdiocesan Catholic schools. "They often get nervous when they see an arrangement that is not the typical one."

Duncan McInnes, executive officer of the non-government NSW Parents Council, said talk of composites still puts "the antenna up for parents" but they were usually reassured once they saw how the classes operated.

The irony is that every class is already a composite in terms of the 18-month range in school starting ages and students' different academic abilities. In NSW, children as young as 4 can go to school and must be in a class by age six. Add to that variations in maturity and a curriculum that emphasises "stages" of learning development rather than strict age limits, and composite classes are now as common as single grades like year 2, year 3 and year 4.

They have increased in number since the early 1990s introduction of curriculum stages that cater for an age difference of up to three years. Kindergarten is "early stage one", year 1 and 2 is "stage one", years 3 and 4 "stage two", and years 5 and 6 "stage three".

In a composite class, this means that all students may learn the same basic lessons in stage two but teachers often set different tasks based on the student's ability.

Linley Lloyd, a senior lecturer in education at the University of New England, has studied composite classes and says the most important factor in their success or failure was "the quality of the teacher".

As well as an experienced and talented teacher, better results are believed to occur if students in the composite class are "independent workers" who respond to the stimulating environment.

"Teachers of multi-age classes may be more likely to see their students as diverse than as similar and to provide developmentally appropriate, that is, differentiated, curricula," she wrote in a research paper. "Tests of academic achievement consistently show either the same or slightly improved scores from children in multi-age classes.

"In addition, there seems to be a benign positive (though small) effect in terms of social/emotional development - children seem to like school better and be more advanced in 'interpersonal intelligence' than their peers in age-segregated or 'straight' classes."

Social benefits include a wider choice of friends, earlier opportunities for leadership roles, mentoring of younger students by older ones and "less competition and aggression". A downside can be the loss of the sense of ownership and identity that comes with being in an age-specific group.

Most public schools and low-fee Catholic and independent schools have at least a few composite classes. A

Heraldinvestigation last year of public primary school class sizes found about 80 per cent of schools had composite classes, most commonly two grades grouped together, such as years 3 and 4.

Lloyd and other academics differentiate between "composite" and "multi-age" classes. The preferable model is the multi-age class where the school bases its education philosophy on teaching children of mixed ages "by choice".

Queensland leads Australia in this approach, while in NSW there is a combination of choice and necessity. The "composite" class is often formed for "administrative convenience".

They are supported by the public school Parents & Citizens Association, but the NSW Teachers Federation backs them only if they are formed for educational reasons, not as a dumping ground for extra students.

There are many myths about the classes. One is that they are found only in public schools but McInnes said they are "a creature of the non-government sector, especially for beginning or small schools".

This is because the cost of starting a new school is anything from $5 million to $20 million and economic considerations often mean the school is established with merged classes. And in rural areas, composite classes have long been a way of life due to the small size of schools.

McInnes says: "The non-government sector is a bit more tolerant of composites now. We should recognise, too, that teachers are more highly trained to identify and cater for the range of students."

Administrative considerations often drive the formation of composite classes in public schools. Each principal is allocated teacher numbers according to the total student enrolment. So if 100 children enrol in year 3, where the recommended class size is 31 students, composites are needed because standard age classes would be too large.

During a study for a regional school with changing enrolment patterns, Lloyd recommended a permanent configuration of composite classes to provide planning certainty and iron out "the little bubbles in population" that most schools face. "Many schools don't know until the beginning of the year how many students they will have, they can't accurately predict," she said.

"So two weeks into the school year they are shifting classes around and that's when parents get upset."

Parental attitudes are influenced by whether their child is a younger or older member of a composite. Many see the benefits of accelerated learning for younger children but fear the older students will be bored or saddled with easier work.

Bird, from Croydon Park Public School, says this is another "myth" that fails to recognise that children work at different rates and a staged curriculum offers flexibility for bright and slow learners, younger and older students.

"The younger kids are so busy concentrating on their work, the gifted are pushed wider and there is less repetition of work for the older students," he says.

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