Historically, classes at Stanmore Public School have been mostly single-grade, with ‘composite’ classes containing two grade levels formed to address the problem of uneven grade enrolments. For 2021, we have made a philosophical decision to form stage-based ‘multi-age’ classes in Years 3-6. The aim is the social and academic benefit of our students. 

We anticipate that we will form six Stage 2 classes (Years 3 and 4), one cross stage class (Years 4 and 5) and five Stage 3 classes (Years 5 and 6) in Years 3-6. These classes reflect that the NSW curriculum is arranged in stage-based, rather than grade-based outcomes. The exception is the cross stage 4/5 class, which is necessary due to enrolment numbers.

Why multi-age classes in Years 3-6?

Single-grade classes are an administratively convenient way to organise schools. However, single grade classes are made up of learners with a wide range of abilities, working at different developmental stages. In a sense, every class is a ‘composite’ class.

Quality teaching that is differentiated to meet the needs of every student, well supported by mentoring, instructional leadership, teacher collaboration and professional learning, has a far greater impact on student achievement than the structure of classes.

Teaching practices such as explicit teaching, formative assessment, flexible grouping strategies and collaborative inquiry-based learning, all of which are routinely implemented across classes at Stanmore PS, are equally effective in multi-age classes as in single grade classes.

Educational research does not show a clear positive or negative impact of multi-age classes on academic achievement. However, multi-age classes will enable larger teams of teachers working with similar cohorts in Stages 2 and 3, increasing the capacity of teachers to authentically collaborate on programming and assessment, enhance consistent teacher judgement and practice, and create flexible groupings across classes in specific curriculum areas. We will collect data and measure the impact of this increased collaborative practice on student achievement.

Educational research does show that multi-age classes have positive impacts on students’ social and emotional outcomes and wellbeing. Friendships and social connections across grade levels increase tolerance and social cohesion, and provide students with more opportunities to make connections with students of a similar age, with shared interests or compatible personalities.

Older children in a multi-age class can receive a self-esteem boost from acting as role models for younger children. Younger children can aspire to achieve at the level of the older children in the class. Multi-age classes also create more class groups for each grade level, enabling teachers to strategically separate children who have an adverse effect on each other’s learning or wellbeing. This greatly benefits the culture and learning environment of classrooms across the school.

Frequently Asked Questions

Multi-age Classes: An overview of educational research

Multi-age classes are classes composed of children from more than one year level – usually two, but sometimes three consecutive year levels. 

In larger schools in NSW, they are usually formed for one of two reasons:

  1. ‘Composite’ classes, formed to cope with the problem of uneven grade enrolments.
  2. ‘Multi-age’ classes formed by philosophical choice, aimed at gaining academic, social/emotional and pedagogical benefits from mixing students of different ages. These multi-age classes are often designed to match the organisation of the syllabus, which is based on ‘stages’ running over two years.

Context

Multi-age classes were generally rare in the 20th century outside of small rural schools, although they were in vogue during the 1960s. They fell out of favour with researchers and administrators from the 1970s-1990s, but have become increasingly common in the 21st century as research shows social-emotional and academic benefits to learners, provided quality teaching practices are in place.

Composite classes, in schools where most classes are single-grade, can be unpopular with parents, who may believe that their child is disadvantaged by being in one. This perception is often regardless of whether their child is in the younger or older cohort.

What does educational research tell us?

This section provides brief summaries of three educational research sources. Links to full documents and further sources are provided below.

Multi-age or composite classes 2014-2017
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, NSW DoE

Three findings stand out in the research:

  • Class organisation “will not determine either educational advantage or disadvantage” (NSW DET 1997).
  • The most important factors in determining student success are the quality of the teacher and his or her teaching.
  • Multi-age classes may benefit students both socially and emotionally.

In 2017, 35.5% of classes across NSW were multi-age classes.

The Conversation: Are mixed-grade classes any better or worse for learning?
Linley Cornish, Chair of Teaching and Learning, UNE

Putting students into classes based on their age is an administrative convenience. As all parents and teachers know, a child’s age tells you nothing definitive about his or her development. Children achieve different levels of development in different domains at the same age.

Various studies and meta-analyses have consistently shown positive results for multi-age classes which are formed by choice and have a strong focus on individual learning needs and learning with both older and younger classmates. When social-emotional factors are considered, the evidence for mixed-grade classes is positive. Results over a large number of studies are not unarguably conclusive, but they are more strongly positive than for academic achievement.

It is not the class structure that affects learning so much as the type of learning activity engaged in, its relevance, its interest, a student’s learning to date, and many other factors including the student’s active involvement in the learning and the quality of the teaching.

Research into cooperative learning shows consistently positive results. Learning with others in genuinely collaborative groups is effective and can be organised in any type of class, but mixed-grade teachers have more opportunities to group students flexibly, in different ways at different times.

Multiage Education: An Exploration of Advantages and Disadvantages through a Systematic Review of the Literature
Ronksley-Pavia et al.
Stage classes

In some areas of Australia (particularly NSW), a type of mixed-grade class has emerged called stage classes.  Stage classes are organised around the stages of expected skill attainment. The primary purpose of organising classes through the stage model is to undo the limitations around mono-grade classes in order to deliver a learning approach based on developmental stages and in so doing encompass some of the associated benefits of multiage schooling.

Teacher attributes

To be able to teach successfully in mixed-age settings, teachers needed to be experienced, and well-trained in pedagogical practices specifically in these settings (e.g., grouping practices; differentiation), be well-supported (by schools and communities); able and willing to work collaboratively (such as team teaching, and group planning); be flexible; and be able to provide safe, supportive, and nurturing classroom environments.

Teaching practices

Successful approaches in multi-age classes included grouping practices, collaborative learning approaches, process approaches to learning, flexible assessment practices, and combinations of these approaches, used in conjunction with curriculum practices, classroom layout (seating arrangements), and collaborative teacher planning.

Implications: advantages and disadvantages of multi-age schooling

The academic and cognitive advantages and disadvantages of mixed-age schooling are not clearly defined across the research. Some studies suggest no differences in academic outcomes, and others suggest lowered outcomes, and still others suggest increased outcomes for students in mixed-age settings. The key to successful multi-age schooling appears to be the quality of teaching approaches being used in individual settings. 

There is general agreement that students’ social and emotional growth is supported more in multi-age classes than in single grade, and there is general acceptance that the social opportunities in mixed-age settings facilitate this. This is through collaborative activities that support cross-age understanding and cooperation through teaching that develops student skills regardless of age and grade level.

References

Multi-age or composite classes 2014-2017
Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, NSW DoE

The Conversation: Are mixed-grade classes any better or worse for learning? (2015)
Linley Cornish, Chair of Teaching and Learning, UNE

Multiage Education: An Exploration of Advantages and Disadvantages through a Systematic Review of the Literature (2019)
Ronksley-Pavia, Barton, Pendergast: Griffith University and University of Southern Queensland

Other relevant sources:

Multi-age learning and teaching (2006)
Queensland Studies Authority

Inside a Multi-Age Classroom (2017)
Stuart Miller, The Atlantic Magazine