Composite classes – a pressure point


I’ve received number of e-mails this week from parents pleading with me not to establish composite classes in their schools. A composite class is one where a primary school class is composed of children from more than one year group, e.g. P3/4 composite class. 

The common theme in all the e-mails is that if I care about children then I can’t allow this to happen.  I should probably point out at the outset that my own children were taught in composite classes.  On first being notified of compositing I have to admit to being concerned – despite my own experience as an educator. As parents we tend to like the status quo – we don’t like the idea of change – especially change which seems intuitively risky. 

Whilst I understand the reflexive reaction that many parents have towards composite classes the issue often has the potential to whip a storm of fury all based upon the supposition that the quality of education will suffer.  When looked at from a certain perspective you can see how this appears to be a convincing and logical argument – which can be captured as follows:

“Children in non-composite class are all the “same age” and can be more effectively taught by a teacher than a class made of of children from two different year groups.”

However, when one considers the reality of this situation most “normal” classes are made up of children who have an age range of 12 months. Yet given the arbitrary way in which we identify cut off dates for entry to school – its very possible for children who are born days apart to be in separate years groupings.

As I have explored before such  range of ages can mean that in child development terms there can be a gap between children of between 24 – 36 months. Chronological age does not equate to stage of development – any of us who have had our own children can testify to that.

The reality is that a composite class will often have a less of an age range than a “year group class” – as we group the class by birth date, e.g. an age spread of a less than 8 months. 

Yet compositing can also strike fear into some teachers – particularly those who have never taught such a class grouping before.  I recently spoke to very experienced head teacher about this and she told me that there is no more differentiation required in a two year group composite class than there is in a single year group class – in fact because of the closer age range there might even be less. Of course some of our smaller East Lothian schools have composite classes composed of up to four years groups – now that is challenging but as I’ve described before can lead to truly stimulating learning situations.

To return to my e-mail correspondence – I do care about children (that’s why I’m in the job). I know it goes with the territory and it’s why I get paid but people seem to think if they apply enough pressure that they can get more money for their own school.  It’s my job to advocate for all children in East Lothian – not just those whose parents might be able to mount a campaign to change a very fair system for allocating teachers to schools.  The reality is that an average teacher’s salary – with on-costs such a pension etc – is £36,000.  One extra teacher for one school means that this money must be taken from another school (93% of our education budget is devolved directly to schools).

Last point –  no parent has ever complained about compositing once their child has moved into such a class – only before.

Revolution, not Evolution


A Curriculum for Excellence provides us with a singular opportunity to radically transform our secondary school curriculum. It seems to be taken as a fact in education that change should be something that evolves over time “Evolution not revolution” – I’ve used the term myself on many occasions. But there are times when evolution just means more of the same – it’s safe, conservative and often results in no change taking place at all.

So here are 33 ideas for the secondary school curriculum, some of which might not be revolutionary in themselves, but taken collectively would certainly constitute a revolution:

1. Children and Young People will take tests and exams when they are ready – not because of the year group to which they belong.

2. The majority of learning will not be delivered in year group blocks, i.e. not age specific. Students will access learning opportunities as a consequence of prior learning.

3. There will be significant opportunities for young people to follow areas of personal interest during the school week.

4. Home and school learning will be considered to be of equivalent value and be reflected in the learning programmes developed by each young person.

5. Each young person will have a unique learning programme (timetable) which will include home and school learning in it’s widest sense.

6. Supplementary courses (delivered in the evening) will be available for parents to enable them to support their child’s learning.

7. Parents will be encouraged to “shadow” their child’s learning at any time they might be available.

8. Teachers will have personal timetables/contracts which will enable them to work from home – supporting online learning; at school during the day – supporting Learning Teams, delivering courses, and supporting core activities; at school during the evening – delivering courses and supporting core activities.

9. We will develop a “Learning Licence” model of progressive courses where children and young people “learn how to learn” for which they will receive accreditation.

10. Each child and young person will be part of a Learning Team (20 members), which will represent a cross-section of ages. Each Learning Team will be supported and facilitated by a teacher who will help guide them in their progress through their own curriculum. Learning Team’s will meet for one hour each day and will also encourage and enable peer coaching.

11. Young people over the age of 14 can apply for up to one day work experience which can be paid or unpaid employment.

12. Young people over the age of 16 need only attend the courses they are following – they can apply for up to two days work experience which can be paid or unpaid employment.

13. We will break the traditional inter-locking and restrictive nature of the timetable by ensuring that teaching staff spend the majority of their teaching time working with a “horizontal” level of work.

14. Young people over the age of 16 may devise their own curriculum by accessing courses available at their own school, other schools,  further education and higher education institiutions  learning and on-line learning environments.

15. Children and young people will be progressively taught, from an early age, how to make the best use of virtual learning environments.

16. All courses and materials will be made available on-line via GLOW.

17. Schools can use voluntary mentors who – following appropriate disclosure – can support the independent learning of students.

18. The maximum size of any Learning Group will be 100 learners, e.g. the traditional year group; or house group would be too big. It will be possible to  belong to a “vertical” and “horizontal” Learning Group. Teachers and other members of staff will be associated with a Learning Group

19. All pupil support staff  (including guidance staff ) should be focused upon the needs of children with additional support for learning needs. All other children and young people should be supported by their Learning Team. PSE will be embedded in the curriculum.

20. The learning needs and curriculum for a group of young people will be delivered by a Learning Team of teachers and support staff.

21. All secondary schools will adopt a common structure for the school day to enable shared on-line learning to take place and for common timetabling to be established for some subjects.

22. We will create an East Lothian Learning Campus where children and young people can access learning suited to their needs regardless of geographic location.

23. We will form a strategic partnership with further and higher education institutions to offer distance learning and on-site courses.

24. Some courses for senior students will be delivered in the evening.

25. We will seek to double the current range of certificated courses available to young people in East Lothian – many of which will have a vocational focus.

26. We will offer a wide range of learning opportunities for adults to access during the school day and in the evening.

27. We will work with local employers to support modern apprenticeships where young people can access learning and training.

28. We will develop specialisms at all of our secondary schools which will enable some young people to focus their education on particular attributes which they are seeking to develop. 

29. All learners will have their own personal computer with wifi capacity which they can use at home and at school to access their learning.

30. Teachers will be members of staff of the East Lothian Learning Campus and can be deployed in any location with their agreement.

31. All young people must achieve Level E in Reading, Writing and Maths by the age of 14 – unless they have specific learning needs – their curriculum would be modified to enable additional time in these areas to facilitate learning

32. Schools will develop and promote their identity through a strong emphasis upon wider achievements such as music, creative arts, performing arts, sport, community volunteering, local politics, outdoor education, community leadership – these will be referred to as “core activities”

33. There will be no ability groupings for any classes, although differentiation within classes will be encouraged.

Out of the mouths of babes!!!


During my visit to Preston Lodge this morning I asked a class why they throught they were able to produce such outstanding work in the Art Department – and believe me it is outstanding.

The answer blew me away!!

“They take what we know and help us learn more” Natalie

Jim Cram, the Principal Teacher, explained that the teachers in the department try to give the learners space to work things out for themselves and to act as “waiters” – there to serve and anticipate the next step. I gave this more thought on the way home and I quite like this analogy – the (good) waiter provides a menu, provides advice and guidance, provides the tools and resources with which to eat, anticipates the needs of the diner throughout the meal and try to remain as unobtrusive as possible. As ever with metaphors – the more you strecth it the weaker it gets but I certainly know what Jim meant – and, what’s more, so did the class.

As Jim pointed out such a process involves significant preparation but the rewards are worth it – from what I saw today they certainly are.

Independence, Continuity and Confidence

I was in Macmerry Primary School this morning observing a P1/2 class and a P3/4 class.

I watched active learning  in action when I observed the infant class work in three groups on reading and writing. I was really impressed by the ability of the pupils to work independently with real quality, whilst the teacher worked with another group. When they finished their task they went to the play area and chose what they wanted to do next – building with blocks, painting, drawing letters in sand, wieghing and measuring, playing in the ‘house’ area – and many other options. The pupils were confident about making their own decisions and focused on the task they selected. Such independence doesn’t just happen – many of the class were in P1, i.e. only a few weeks into term – yet they had become accustomed to clear and consistent expectations of their teacher.

It was interesting when I went into the P3/4 class that I saw a similar level of independence and expectations from the teacher. It’s this level of consistency and continuity which makes it easy for pupils.

This set me to thinking about the levels of independence we offer older pupils. We have this tendency to think that independent working is something we should work towards in later secondary years – when in actual fact children have been used to working this way in their first two years of primary – or even earlier. It also struck me that there is a huge amount to be gained from having consistent expectations and ways of working in classes – so many difficulties arise when a pupil has to work within different parameters as they move from one classroom to another – does it have to be this way?

Assistant Teachers – “two brains are always better than one”.

I was in Cockenzie Primary School this week and watched a P7 Maths class.  The class was a top set but was made up of three differentiated groups. Each of the groups knew the level that they were working towards and understood what they had to do to make progress.

I was very impressed by the effective use of assistant teachers in the class.  Education has often used pupils within class to assist the teaching process through what used to be called pupil teachers or monitors.

In Cockenzie, when the teacher was working with one specific group the other groups had a nominated “assistant teacher” – it was this person’s job to help the others in the goup who might be having difficulty.  The assistant teacher role was rotated on a daily basis.  When I asked pupils what they thought of this they all said they really enjoyed being the “teacher” – it didn’t seem to matter that they might not be the best in the group – as one of them said:

“Two brains are always better than one” – now that’s what I call teaching!

TESS Article 2 – Classrooms with limits

 I’ve been working on a draft for my next TESS article.  I’d welcome comments and suggestions for improvement:  

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to observe the learning and teaching process in all of our schools. One of the things that I’ve been struck by during my visits is how necessity is the mother of invention – particularly where the organisation of learning comes into play. 

East Lothian has many 2/3-teacher schools, which necessitates the “dreaded”  (by parents) composite class. In such a situation the teacher might have three or four different year groups represented in the same class.  There is no alternative so the teacher accepts the responsibility to organise learning in such a way that every pupil in the class gains access to the curriculum and makes progress.

Contrast this with the secondary school where it is possible to split a single year group into discrete “ability” groups and give responsibility for each group to a single teacher.

The logic of  “ability” setting appears to be compelling.  It’s surely easier for the teacher to teach one “ability” level in a class. The pupils in a set have access to a curriculum that is tailored to their “ability”. Pupils in a set are working with children of the same “ability” and the confidence of pupils of lower “ability” is not compromised being in presence of higher “ability” peers. Lastly schools can focus their support staff on lower “ability” groups. Of course all of the above depend upon the premise that we can actually make accurate judgements about children’s “ability” and that each set is a homogeneous group, which requires no further differentiation.

The second reason for setting is that most parents, who express a preference, prefer setting – in fact huge concerns can arise if their child is not in a set appropriate to their expectations, i.e. at least one above where they actually are.

The final and  unspoken reason- for “ability” setting is the reality that pupils of lower “ability” are those who are likely to disrupt classes and the learning of others – by removing them from the presence of those who “want to learn” the teachers are able to make progress with the curriculum. Finally, the HMIe themselves have actively promoted setting since 1996 as the preferred mode of organising learning.

It’s a brave secondary Head Teacher then who even thinks of challenging such overwhelming forces in favour of “ability” setting – especially where the scale of the school makes it easy to facilitate.

Yet the small school Head Teacher faces no such pressure and although they might look to emulate some of the setting models from larger schools the prime modus operandi is the use of groups characterised by careful planning, differentiation and personalisation.

I spoke to such a group of pupils in a P5 – P7 class and asked them if they saw any disadvantages of being in such a class – they saw none! Yet when I asked them what the advantages were I got a long list, which included:  “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”; “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”; “You get to know people of different ages”; and “You get to see what you will be doing next year” – wow – talk about metacognition!

In the summer I was fortunate enough to listen to Norman Kunc – who enjoys (as opposed to suffers from) cerebral palsy – and has the most challenging views about how schools unwittingly erode and prevent children from having any sense of belonging to the education system they experience.

Kunc used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and pointed out that modern society values mastery over belonging – yet in Maslow’s hierarchy mastery cannot be achieved unless the “need” for belonging is first fulfilled.  The result is that young people are disengaged from the learning process and seek out other groups with whom they can form allegiance and fulfil their need to belong.

I’m not decrying setting in all circumstances – but I do have to question the unwitting impact, artificial limits and fixed expectations which extensive setting places upon children particularly in the early years of secondary school.

As a former secondary Head Teacher – who allowed setting in Maths and English – I only wish I had had the courage of my convictions to explore alternative and more positive ways of organising learning.

School Visit – Dirleton Primary School – differentiation in action

I visited Dirleton Primary School this morning. The difference between visiting a school like Dirleton and a school like Ross High School is that I observed 100% of the teachers in Dirleton in a single morning.

It was good that I managed to speak to the teachers over coffee before visiting the classes and was able to explain a little bit more about what I was trying to achieve through my visits – they’ve also promised to have a go at rewriting my explanatory letter to make it less formal and intimidating.

The overwhelming feature of the practice I observed during my visit was the consumate way th teachers managed composite classes. Composite classes strike fear into the majority of parents’ hearts  and in the secondary sector they are relatively unheard of. Yet here I saw two particular classes P3/4 and P5-7 being taught the same topic (mental maths) in a way which took account of differing abilities and rates of progression.

At the end of one of these classes I managed to ask the pupils what they thought about being in a class with children of different ages.  They couldn’t see any disadvantages but were able to give me a list advantages:

  1. “You get to hear things that you’ve done before but didn’t perhaps understand the first time”
  2. “You get to help other people in the class who are doing new things”
  3. “You get to know people of different ages”
  4. “You get to see what you will be doing next year”

There were a few others but I didn’t get them down quickly enough. Attainment in the school is very good so the children certainly don’t seem to be suffering from the experience – in fact attainment is improving. So what did I take from this?

What I saw were classes where everyone belonged and was valued. I saw classes where children knew where they were and where they were going. I saw classes without artifical limits. I saw classes where teachers used learners to help learners. I saw classes where learners were involved in their own and others learning.

The consequence of all this was captured by discussion I had with the pupils at the end of the lesson. They were confident, responsible, effective and successful learners (now where have heard that before?)

School Visits 2

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post I intend to make three school visits each week in the coming session.

The focus of my visits are: leadership; self-evaluation and learning tasks.

At our Quality Improvement Group meeting this afternoon I was asked what I was looking for in relation to the last of these points of focus.

So here goes:


What is the purpose of my classroom visits? – to focus our attention upon the  selection of challenging and appropriate learning tasks by teachers in the learning and teaching process.
Why is this important?  – where children are required to undertake challenging and appropriate learning tasks the quality of their learning is significantly enhanced.
During my visits I’ll be asking:
· teachers to describe the learning task that they have set the class for that lesson.
· teachers to describe how this lesson connects with previous lessons and future lessons.
· children to tell me about their involvement in the setting of learning tasks
· children to tell me what they are doing and what they need to do to be successful in relation to the task.
During my visits I’ll be looking at:
· the level of pupil engagement in the learning task – at all ability levels within the class.
· the quality of children’s work.
· the information provided to children about the task
· the information provided to children about what a successful performance would look like.
Who will I visit?
· I would like to visit classes at random – rather than being directed to specific teachers.  On my arrival in school I will discuss with the Head Teacher which classrooms it will be appropriate for me to visit.
How many classrooms will I visit during my time in school?

· At least two – I will remain in each class for at least 20 minutes.

What feedback will I provide?

· I will write to the Head Teacher with feedback about my visit.

What will I do at the end of the year?

· I will complete a report on visits to schools and reflect upon the issues and good practice that have observed over the course of the year.

Setting and the need for differentiation?


I had an interesting conversation with a teacher today about there being little need to differentiate in classes which have been set (put into ability groupings for certain subjects e.g. maths, english)

Such an assertion must be based upon the premise that all pupils are placed (through accurate assessment) in the appropriate set and that the class – which might number 25-30 – are a homogenous group.

I’m interested in this point of view as I haven’t been able to come across any research which proves that setting is more effective than mixed ability classes. I have often heard the argument that setting makes the teaching process easier.  Maybe that’s because there’s no need to differentiate? Or is there?