MIXING YEARS GROUPS AT SCHOOL: New research shows that ‘composite classes’ can boost pupil attainment

13 Apr 2021

New research from Scotland shows that many school pupils who study in composite classes – where children from different year groups are taught together – perform better than those in single year cohorts.

The study by Markus Gehrsitz and colleagues finds evidence that for early years pupils, the gains created by composite classes are roughly equivalent to the attainment gap between the average pupil and a pupil in one of the 20% most deprived data zones in Scotland.

He comments: ‘Our research finds that exposure to older peers is highly beneficial to early stage primary school pupils in terms of attainment. Composite classes explicitly create these peer effects while simultaneously reducing the number of classes that are needed and by extension reducing cost.’

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Composite classes are widespread in Scotland in both urban and rural areas, with one in five primary school pupils in Scotland attending a composite class. These multi-grade classes are also common in the United States and France.

The effects of composite classes on pupil attainment are the subject of much debate among parents, educators and politicians – yet they are little-studied. In a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, researchers at the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute set out to investigate their impact on pupil attainment. For this they took advantage of high-quality pupil level data covering a period of 12 years.

Their results suggest that Primary 1 (P1) pupils benefit from sharing composite classrooms with P2 pupils, with every additional older pupil raising the P1 students’ numeracy performance by around one percentage point. The effects on literacy were slightly larger at 1.3 to 1.5 percentage points.

By way of comparison, the gains being created by composite classes are roughly equivalent to the attainment gap between the average pupil and a pupil in one of the 20% most deprived data zones in Scotland.

The results for P4 and P7 pupils were less definite but suggestive of similar patterns.

The researchers also found no compelling evidence for adverse attainment effects on second-graders who share a composite classroom with first-graders. The researchers also failed to find persistent benefits of composite learning in P1 pupils when tested at P4 level – suggesting either that the benefits are short-lived, fade over time or the study lacked the statistical precision to detect longer-term effects.

No other positive or negative effects of composite classes were observed beyond attainment, for example in relation to attendance, suspension rates or attitudes to learning.

Even though composite classes tend to be smaller than single-year classes the research showed that class size was not a driving factor.

Lead researcher Dr Markus Gehrsitz said: ‘Our research finds that exposure to older peers is highly beneficial to early stage primary school pupils in terms of attainment.

‘Composite classes explicitly create these peer effects while simultaneously reducing the number of classes that are needed and by extension reducing cost.

‘Our study should ease parental concerns about any negative attainment effect of composite classes, and reassure local authorities that the cost savings provided by composite classes do not come at the expense of pupil attainment or educational quality.

‘While not a panacea – for instance composite classes often require more intense preparation by teachers – we would encourage policymakers to experiment more with mixed classrooms.

‘Given the benefits suggested by our evidence, particularly in early years education, composite classes may be a useful strategy to support attainment after the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.’

Markus Gehrsitz

University of Strathclyde | markus.gehrsitz@strath.ac.uk