Each year I invite parents to contribute information into the class list formation for the following year. I have felt that we as teachers do not know everything about students and an opportunity to have additional information was valuable. Of course I get the wish lists, requests and ultimatations as the process in some ways invites but I also get information that is incredibly valuable to teachers.
I also get an insight into the thinking lots of parents express about education which gives me opportunities to at least challenge and hopefully answer some queries. We, at school council are building a question and answer sheet with simple one or two line answers to queries hope to put this on the school website.
Typically each year I get statements or questions about multi-age classrooms, the difference between multi age and composite classrooms, flexible groupings and friendship groupings. Its a challenge to put in simple and concise [2 or 3 sentences] answers. Here’s my attempt
1. What are school structures?
A: Structures in the broader sense are all those organizational arrangements that are made around student learning including: class groupings, specialist subjects, teacher roles and timetables.
2. Who decides what these structures are?
A: Ultimately the principal is responsible for managing the organizational structures of a school. The principal is bound by industrial agreements to consult with teachers through a designated consultative committee and I choose to inform school council so that I can hear parent voice. Consultation for teachers is defined as the genuine opportunity to influence the decision making process but not hinder or halt it.
3. When is the final decision made about school structures for the following year?
A: The interim or draft structure is developed in October each year and aligned with the schools workforce plan. During October and November final student numbers are confirmed and staffing vacancies are advertised and appointments made. The final structure is confirmed in early December. Where there is a high degree of volatility in student enrolment numbers or the school’s capacity to attract and retain staff is diminished then time lines are pushed into the following year to avoid either massive debt or significant change.
4. What factors are taken into account in deciding these structures?
A: I have just mentioned two factors that are taken into account: the school’s annual budget provided by the government which is based on student numbers, and the workforce plan which blends novice and expert teachers within a leadership structure that can implement the schools goals. The school has a strategic plan approved and signed by the Department of Education [DEECD], school council and the principal which sets out the next 4 years improvement targets. This strategic plan impacts on the structure: for example, the provision of Languages other than English [LOTE] or intervention teachers needed to boost some student’s outcomes.
Other factors include: enrolments numbers of students across the various year levels, gender imbalances in various groups or year levels, the need to cater for social, emotional or health issues students present with and workload issues that are listed in industrial agreements.
Finally we have some philosophical beliefs about the way students learn and we try and build structures that best match the students learning needs. This is probably the least understood area in school structures and one that creates the most controversy. We all have different beliefs based on our experiences of schooling however the one almost self evident truth is that schooling should reflect the needs of 21st century learners which in a constantly changing world are quite different and challenging to us who were schooled in a different century.
5. I understand we have more boys enrolled at EPS than girls, is that true and if so what difference, if any, does this gender imbalance make in deciding school structures?
A: Yes, we do have more boys enrolled across the school than girls although this varies in different year level groups. For example in 2008 we will have a prep group of almost 50% of each gender whilst in year 6 we have a ratio of 76% boys and 24% girls.
We know that there is some evidence that each gender has preferred ways or styles of learning and that a large gender group can at times overwhelm the needs of the other smaller gender group. To encourage both genders to learn in multiple ways we try, wherever possible, to structure balanced gender groups. Sometimes this is not possible and we form single gender classes. There are other times we will want to deliberately structure single gender learning groups and in 2009 we are considering gender based mathematics groups in the senior school.
Gender is a significant factor in forming school structures at EPS and will continue to be for the next few years.
6. I notice at EPS we have some multi-age classes, are some ages better to be multi-aged than others (ie are younger students better to be multi-aged than older ones or does it make no difference?)
A: I know of little research to suggest that any one age group is better suited to multi age structures than another. The one thing I would suggest is that multi age classrooms whilst increasing the age range by some 6 months do not necessarily, by themselves, increase the range of competencies that teachers plan to cater for during lessons. Developmentally children learn at different rates and given a whole range of life experiences will bring different competencies and interests to each discipline they learn. Most teachers acknowledge that they need to plan for a range of abilities in the classrooms whether straight age based classes or multi aged.
7. Are there any specific criteria in deciding which students are allocated to a multi-aged class or is it random?
A: The criteria considered when forming classes include gender, even distribution of class numbers, spread of academic abilities and social or emotional needs. Multi age determines the numbers of students from each year level that are to be allocated to that class.
8. Are there any specific criteria in deciding which teachers are allocated to teach a multi-aged class? If yes, what criteria are used?
A: No. All teachers are expected to cater for a range of abilities and interests no matter what group they teach. Some teachers prefer multi age as it breaks down aged based expectations and promotes broader working relationships amongst students. I think teachers and parents also like to spread children to prevent clashes and provide opportunities to build social skills around friendship, respect and responsibility.
9. Is multi-aging the same as composite classes? If not, what is the difference?
A: No. Composite classes were originally formed to still work in age based expectations often dividing students artificially by year levels regardless of their learning needs. In the worst case scenario I saw a composite class divided into two halves of the room with the middle corridor the divide. Students worked in text books designed for their year level expectations regardless of their competencies. Multi aged classrooms on the other hand start with the premise that there will be a range of abilities in the group and that we group according to competencies and needs regardless of age.
10. Are there differences in the academic results and social development of students in multi-aged classes compared to same-age classes? If yes, what these differences?
A: I have seen no research to support that there is any difference in academic outcomes based purely on aged level or multi aged groupings. I have evidence of a difference in outcomes based on the instructional capacities of teachers.
11. Do other similar, Victorian, primary schools have some multi-age classes and if so which schools?
A: Victorian schools group students in many different ways including multi aged, family based; single age and gender based depending upon their individual contexts. I think the one thing we have in common is the search for ways to better cater for 21st century learners.
12. Given the larger age differences in a multi-aged class how does the day-to-day teaching by the teacher differ, compared to a single-aged class, in order to cater for the differing standards of academic and social skills of the students in the class?
A: I hope teachers’ structure learning to best cater for the range of academic needs the children have no matter what the age range. I think one challenge is providing differentiated instruction that might mean some children receive more instruction in some disciplines that in others.