Composite Classes - Stages not Ages
At Leamington School we will have composite classes in our Yr 3/4 (Nikau) and Yr 5/6 (Kahikatea) syndicates in 2013. By “composite classes,” we mean putting two consecutive year-groups together in one class. If your child is younger you may query - will my child be able to keep up? If they are older - will my child be held up?
Over the years composite classes have been the source of controversy for some, with parents sometimes believing that their child is being disadvantaged in some way if they are placed in a composite class.
The key to understanding composites is realising that growth is determined in stages and not magically by ages.
Composite classes doesn't mean your child is dumb or a genius. It doesn’t mean that they will get work that is too hard or not hard enough.
It makes strong educational sense to group children based on their needs rather than on their age. Even within the same class of a straight year level, children will be at different levels. New Zealand teachers are trained in identifying this, and the teachers at Leamington School are extremely skilled in this are. They continually look at the needs of the children in their class, extending those who learn more quickly and supporting those who take more time to learn new concepts. Unlike other countries / schools where whole-class teaching is often the norm, the teachers at Leamington School teach in ability groups. Straight classes require as much group teaching as composite classes because this is the hallmark of good teaching. There is no difference in the range of abilities present in a straight class compared to a composite.
The good thing about composite classes is that it draws attention to individual needs and development and facilitates individualised learning (sometimes called Personalised Learning).
There is no one curriculum level per age group in NZ. It is not as simple as Year 1 learns Level 1, Year 2 learns Level 2, which is common practice overseas. The NZ curriculum is set up in developmental bands which range from 1-3 years per level.
Invariably students in any one class are all at different places in these curriculum bands, whether they be in straight classes or composites. Separate programmes are used, in most curriculum areas, for the different groups of students according to their level of development or ability level, while there are also some whole class activities such as in art and drama.
Composite classes can provide significant benefits to both the younger and older students in the class. Older students can benefit from helping younger students in co-operative learning situations. The younger students have the opportunity of enhanced learning experiences where they are ready for it. There are many examples where younger children can show older ones a thing or two! Role models and leaders can come from both the younger and older children; the children who excel at these traits do so irrespective of age.
Rsearch, both in New Zealand and overseas, has shown no detrimental academic effects from composite classes but many additional benefits. A major review of international research into multi-age classes was undertaken by Veenman (1995). He investigated 56 studies in 12
countries including Australia, looking at the cognitive and non-cognitive effects of multi-age and single-age classes. He found that there were no differences found with respect to maths, reading, or language and that with respect to attitudes towards school, self-concept and social adjustment, students are sometimes advantaged by being in multi-age classes instead of single-age classes. Research from the UK has shown children in composite classes do ‘no better or worse’ academically than their peers in a straight grade class, but that, socially, their development is enhanced. They are more confident, can operate better as part of a group, are more assertive, become more independent learners and better problem-solvers. They also make friends outside of their standard age-groups. In later life, if we have a one year age difference with someone this becomes of no consequence.
A University of Glasgow study found that in Europe, there is
“no evidence to show that composite classes affect pupils’ academic performance adversely. It is possible that pupils may gain socially from the experience and show non-cognitive benefits which to date have not been quantified… the academic performance of pupils in composites may ‘simply be no worse and simply no better’ than that of pupils in single-age classes. Some evidence from Scottish primary schools seems to suggest that pupils in composite classes may even have out-performed any other group in the… assessment process.”
Anderson & Parvan (1993) analysed 64 research studies in the US and Canada and found that schools with composite classes were most likely to benefit students from all circumstances and all ability ranges. They noted that longitudinal studies show that the longer the students are in a composite programme the more likely it is that they will have positive attitudes and high academic achievement. Of the 64 studies, 58% found that students in composite programmes had higher academic achievement scores than those students in single-graded programmes; 33% showed the attainment was the same and only 9% showed that the students in multi-age programmes performed worse.
In Australia when the NSW Government discussed this matter in parliament, the Minister of Education V. Chadwick said, “Composite classes have always existed in public education and always will. Educational research by experts says that composite classes are not educationally detrimental; for acceleration of gifted students, they are an educational necessity.”
A New Zealand research project led by Ian Wilkinson and Richard Hamilton to study learning to read in composite classes found that being in a composite class did not contribute to lower reading. The most important factor in reading success was the nature and the quality of the instruction.
Composite classes are not new. They are a common form of class organisation in schools in all education systems, both in NZ and across the world. Regardless of if children are in a straight class or composite class, our focus is always on how to best meet the needs of the children at our school. By having composite classes we are more effectively able to ensure no one age group has to many or too few children, plus we have the added benefit of having more options as to where we can place children, meaning that we can match the needs of the child with the strengths of the teacher, and in some cases, ensure combinations of children are avoided.
There is no empirical evidence for any assumption that student learning is hindered in composite classes. Ultimately, whether children are in composite or straight-age classes, it is not the age combinations that matter. What matters is the quality of teaching and learning and the relationship between the child and the teacher.
Acknowledgement: Green Bay School and Susanne Witt