Why Have Multi-Aged Classes?

The notion of grouping children together in classes based on age had its origins in Australia when public education first started over 150 years ago. It made sense back then because it was easiest to teach any particular age group the same thing at the same time. 

As time went on, syllabus documents were developed for teachers and these were explicit in outlining what a Year 1 student would be taught as compared to a Year 2 student. The underlying assumption was that all children learned content and skills in a sequential fashion and progressed through curriculum at the same rate.

Of course we now consider this poor educational practice. It therefore makes no sense to group children in this way without proper analysis and modification of the practice.

Over many years there has been an increasing trend to group children in multi-aged groups, previously referred to as composite classes. But why?

Firstly, let’s distinguish between a multi-aged and a composite class. What exactly is the difference, as the terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably?

A composite class has students of different ages in more than one grade but the teaching approach is a traditional one where all students in a particular grade receive the same work, regardless of ability. Students in a multi-aged class, on the other hand, are assessed on their academic abilities and teaching is planned on individual need. Age and grade do not matter. For example, the teacher of a composite Year 3/4 class would teach all Year 3 students the same things, and all Year 4 students something else.  The teacher of a multi-aged Year 3/4 class would assess students and teach according to need, regardless of the academic grade a child is in. So the difference between the 2 classes solely comes down to the teaching approach but they are very different.

In small rural schools multi-aged groupings or composite classes are formed out of necessity. The Department of Education is not about to staff small schools so that a Year 5 group with only 4 or 5 students gets its own teacher. That of course would be prohibitive in cost for the taxpayer.

But many larger schools, including our own, organise classes with multiple age groups by choice. 

Educational research cannot point to greater levels of student achievement in either single grade classes or multi-aged classes. But this must be partly due to the measures of achievement that assessors use. It is relatively easy to generate standardised data on literacy and numeracy achievement, and so we have NAPLAN. It is much harder though to create data on higher order thinking and social skills.

For example, there is no standardised measure to gauge how passionate a student is about learning, how well they collaborate to solve problems, or how active they are as global citizens. All of these skills and a whole lot more matter a great deal; they fill our syllabuses and are important life skills.

So which type of class is more conducive to developing these future-focused skills? Multi-aged or single grade? 

The answer is complex. Any skills may be taught well in any classroom, depending on the teacher. The quality of the teaching is the single most important thing in any classroom. Student achievement too should be viewed in relation to a much broader range of skills than those which are currently measured. 

One facet of being an effective teacher is to be able to differentiate curriculum. Any class, whether single or multi-grade, will have students with a diverse range of talents and abilities. The teacher’s role is to facilitate learning for each and every child, based on individual need. In a multi-aged classroom, where teaching the same thing to every child is simply not an option, differentiation must occur. Sadly, this is not always the case in single grade classes.

What we teach in school is governed by syllabus documents, mandated by BOSTES, the Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW. The documents outline learning outcomes that children aspire to achieve, generally across a 2 year period (Kindergarten is the exception). Each 2 years is referred to as a stage of development. For example, students in Years 1 and 2 are considered to be in Stage 1, and are taught Stage 1 content and skills. Importantly, there is no longer any such thing as Year 1 or Year 2 work. We now have Stage 1 outcomes for children of those ages.

Since our syllabuses are organised into stages of development rather than academic years, it therefore makes good sense to organise classes in the same way. Classes then reflect the structures that exist in the syllabuses.

In a school our size with an average cohort of 30 students per grade, having a multi-aged structure also gives us the flexibility to separate children when necessary. Sometimes it’s to split twins into different classes, while at other times it’s to create a classroom dynamic that works (not placing all children with special needs in the one grade together, separating children who together are likely to cause unnecessary distraction in the classroom, having a broad range of talents and abilities in any one class, achieving a better gender balance, and so on).

Another major benefit from having a range of ages in a class, is that there is greater capacity to provide children with the support or extension they need, as well as leadership opportunities that would not otherwise exist. Younger students in a multi-aged group can easily work with older students on more challenging tasks when appropriate. Conversely, older students may be grouped with younger students, to act as learning coaches or to support their own learning with others of a similar ability. The flexibility for forming different ability groups within a multi-aged class is far greater than in a single grade class.

The educational and social benefits of having multi-aged groupings at Mt Ousley are many. But one day, perhaps we may not even have classes at all! It’s possible that schools of the future may develop into large learning centres where students are unrestricted in their movements between different learning areas. Whatever is best for students, will always govern our thinking and organisation. For now, however, multi-aged groupings work extremely well!

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