New research shows that children who study in composite classes – where pupils in different year groups are taught together – perform better than those in single-year cohorts.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Strathclyde, using Scottish pupils’ data, finds that the gains are particularly pronounced for pupils in early primary, with the improved literacy and numeracy performance of P1 pupils in composite classes roughly equivalent to the attainment gap between the average pupil and pupils living in the most disadvantaged areas of Scotland.
In a project funded by the Nuffield Foundation, researchers at the University of Strathclyde’s Fraser of Allander Institute found that P1 pupils benefit from sharing composite classrooms with P2 pupils, with every additional older pupil raising the P1 pupils’ numeracy performance by around one percentage point. The effects on literacy were slightly larger at 1.3 to 1.5 percentage points.
The researchers conclude that 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 per cent most deprived data zones in Scotland.
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The results for P4 and P7 pupils were less clearcut but suggestive of similar patterns, said the researchers.
They write: “Overall, our results show that ﬁrst graders who are selected for P1-P2 classes beneﬁt from exposure to peers who are already in their second year of primary school. By contrast, we ﬁnd no evidence for adverse eﬀects on pupils who are exposed to younger peers because they make up the upper part of a composite class.”
However, they caution that there should be more work on the issue, not least because these results stand in contrast to previous work from outside the UK, which indicated small adverse effects for older composite class pupils in rural areas.
The researchers also found that the benefits of composite learning in P1 did not persist when the pupils were tested again at P4 level.
They added: “This suggests that costs and benefits are either short-lived and wash out over time, or that we lack the statistical precision to detect these long-run effects.”
No other positive or negative effects of composite classes were found by the researchers beyond attainment, for example in relation to attendance, exclusion rates or attitudes to learning.
Even though composite classes tend to be smaller than single-year classes, the research found that class size was not a driving factor, prompting the researchers to conclude “class structure may be more important for attainment than class size”.
However they note that the impact of class size on classroom management and teacher recruitment was beyond the scope of the study.
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, which are widespread internationally and very common in Scotland, explicitly create these peer effects while simultaneously reducing the number of classes that are needed and, by extension, reducing cost.
“Class size reductions, by contrast, offer no statistically significant attainment benefits.
“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 in Scottish schools’ after the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic.”
Ruth Maisey, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, said: “Although focused on schools in Scotland, the finding that composite classes are more effective for improving pupil outcomes than lower class sizes is relevant to other nations in the UK and internationally. In particular, this evidence will help schools which are under capacity make better-informed choices about whether to run with smaller class sizes or to opt for composite classes.”
In coming to their conclusions, the researchers used anonymised data from the Scottish pupil census to code each pupil’s school, grade and class, and compare outcomes over 12 years between 2007-08 and 2018-19.
These data were linked to teacher assessments of pupils’ numeracy and literacy abilities in P1, P4, P7 and the third year of secondary school, as well as surveys on learning attitudes and leavers’ surveys, which allowed the researchers to track each pupil’s qualifications and post-secondary school destinations.