What are composite and multi-age classes?

Good question! Both a composite class and a multi-age class are comprised of students of different ages and stages of learning. They are different to a straight year group class; for example, the Year 2 class only has children who are seven years of age.

Before we get started, it is useful to understand a composite or multi-age class isn’t anything new, in fact the history of education is full of examples where a single teacher has taught a group of students of different ages and stages. Like many things today, as we learned more and accumulated greater wealth or access to resources, some societies and communities were able to develop schools, classrooms, and the age based year levels we now view as the ‘norm’ . There are still many places in the world where children are taught in the safest learning space possible, maximising any available resources, and led by someone willing to pass on knowledge (sometimes qualified, sometimes not) regardless of year levels and age structures.

So what are they exactly?

A composite (or split-year class) class is a combination of children from two or more grade levels in the same classroom. While it can involve more than two years in the same class, the most common configuration is a split between two consecutive grade years – so Years 1 and 2, 2 and 3, and so on. In many schools where it is used, it may not be an intentional learning approach but a solution to enrolment patterns and available resources.

A multi-age class is similar but slightly different in application; it is more often the deliberate mixing of children from various age groups of more than one year in the one class. Multi-age groupings are also known by other terms, e.g. vertical, family and heterogeneous groupings. A big difference is the teacher and class often stay together for more than one year; that is, they move through the learning process together unlike the composite class where the teacher stays but the class changes each year.

Both terms can be used interchangeably along with a number of other terms like split-year, split-grade, combined, non-graded, multi-grade, and so on.

Key points

  • combining students of different ages and stages is common around the world
  • “multi-age”, “multi-grade”, “split-grade”, “mixed-grade”, “combined” or “non-graded” classrooms are all terms to define classes in which students of varying ages, abilities, or interests might be grouped together
  • the structure doesn’t really matter, schools should be providing a “differentiated” curriculum anyway: one that caters to all children as individuals, according to their needs
  • a particular structure – single years, multi-age, etc – does not result in a better results over another
  • negative perceptions are more likely due to school marketing – parents being told they are either good or bad depending on the schools administrative need rather than a curriculum imperative

What does the research tell us – are they good or bad?

Much research has been undertaken in primary schools and this tends to find there is no discernible difference between composite and straight grade classrooms in terms of academic performance. There are benefits relating to student independence, responsibility and study habits, for example, younger children in a composite class generally look to achieve as well as the older children in their work, and older children enjoy leadership and mentoring opportunities which lift their self-esteem. Composite classrooms can be more flexible by allowing children to work at their own pace, offer a wider range of friendship opportunities, and encourage more co-operation and tolerance.

The research does not find a particular structure is better however many parents may have a negative perception of ‘mixed’ classes. According to the experts, education is about more than academic achievement and age is not necessarily an accurate predictor of a child’s development. Others point out that wide-ranging student abilities exist in children of the same age, and not just in composite grades. Some say that cynicism about multi-age classrooms exists because schools tend to incorporate them for administrative convenience, rather than out of philosophical commitment; instilling the view that they are “second rate”.

As a parting thought, as we move into 2020 and beyond, are classrooms relevant? Maybe your child won’t/doesn’t need a classroom, some food for thought!

More resources