Composite Classes - it's all about 'Stages not Ages'
The concept of 'composite classes' means putting two consecutive year groups together in one class. It is not the same as multiple ages in the one class, such as you would associate with small country schools where you may find a bigger range of ages in the same class.
Composite classes are definitely not a new concept, although over the years composite classes have been a fairly misunderstood concept for many families, with parents sometimes thinking that their child is being disadvantaged in some way if they are placed in a composite class. For example: If your child is younger you may have thought - my child be unable to keep up. Some would think they are very clever and this is how the school is extending them. If they are older - my child be held up because they are with younger students who won't be at the same level as my child - or my child is not meeting expectation so they are being held back. It doesn’t mean that they will get work that is too hard or not hard enough at all.
The key to understanding this model is to appreciate that 'growth and learning is determined in stages not ages'.
Although a student might be chronologically older or younger - their maturity, social needs, academic needs and behaviour are uniquely their own. Some need stimulating, some need more maturing. Some have needs in certain areas, but not in others. An obvious example is that although all 7 year olds may be the same age, it is unrealistic to expect that they are all at the same level of ability in Reading or in PE, etc. even if they are all placed together in one class. Through grouping students based on their stage/need they will gain confidence and skill by working with their peers who have a similar ability level. There is no qualitative research that states a Year group class will meet a child’s needs any better than a composite class.
If you reflect on students that attend kindergarten and pre school centres, there can be up to two or more years difference – same class but different stage. The key is the relationship with their teacher.
It makes sense then to group students who are at a similar stage so they can relate, support and grow together. Even within the same class, students will be at different levels and our wonderful NZ teachers are trained to identify this. We are renowned across the world for our skill in differentiating learning to meet the needs of each individual student. Unlike other countries where whole-class teaching is often the norm, NZ teachers are trained to teach to the needs of the students and group them accordingly and flexibly, identifying when a student has achieved the desired learning concept or skill and is ready to move on. Year group classes require as much group teaching as composite classes because this is proven to be effective teaching practice. There is no difference in the range of abilities present in a Year group class compared to a composite.
Older students are not held back in composite classes as there is no one curriculum level per age group in NZ. The New Zealand curriculum is not designed as one level per year (as many overseas education system are) but is set up in developmental bands which can range from 1— 3 years per level (see Years and Curriculum Levels table below). Invariably students in any one class are all at different stages within these curriculum levels, whether they be in Year group classes or composite classes.
Composite classes can provide significant benefits:
It allows greater flexibility for meeting the children’s social / learning needs
It enables matching teacher styles and strengths to make sure we are able to provide the best learning environments and outcomes for all of our students.
They create an environment which enables all students to be respected for their individuality. Through developing each student's skills and understanding in perspective taking, empathy and diversity.
We often find that older students/tuakana thrive with leadership opportunities and actually build self-esteem as they become role models to younger/teina classmates.
Younger students aspire to do work like the older students in the class and get to mix with a wider range of students. Much like we do as adults - we do not only work with nor socialise with peers of our own age.
They reflect the values and beliefs which are important to our society, including collaboration, empathy and support, which are essential for preparing them for their futures in the diverse workforce they will enter.
Role models and leaders can come from both the younger and older children; the children who excel at these traits do so irrespective of their age. We all know that younger siblings/peers can also show older siblings or peers a thing or two!
In terms of school organisation and class numbers, this increased range of classes also provides greater balancing of class numbers. You may be aware that some years we can have significant differences in class numbers, as students do not enter school in exact groups of 25, as well as the addition of new enrolments throughout the year.
A hypothetical example of this is: 80 Year 3 students divided into 3 classes = approximately 26 students per class.
In that same intake year we may have 100 Year 4 students divided into 3 classes = approximately 33 students per class.
However 180 Year 3/4 students divided into 6 classes will average 30 students per class.
Reduced transition and change every year for our students ensures greater focus on learning. Where appropriate, students may stay with the same teacher for two years, ensuring less time required at the start of the year spent on 'relationship building' as the current teacher already knows the student and their needs. The key to high quality teaching and learning remains with the quality of the relationship with the teacher.
There is significant research that clearly identifies a range of benefits for the students. Research, both in New Zealand and overseas, has shown that there are 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. Further research has shown that students in composite classes experience enhanced social development. They are more confident, can operate better as part of a group or team, are more aware of others, develop their independence as learners and are better problem-solvers. They also make friends outside of their standard age-groups which, as we know as adults, we don’t work with people of the same age so mixing ages at school over different year levels is a small step in mirroring real life.
There is no empirical evidence for any assumption that student learning is hindered in composite classes. Ultimately, whether students are in composite or Year group 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 teachers.