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Fair dos for all in the composite classroom

Another concept in educational jargon is about to hit us in a big way if Higher Still is to be believed. It is "composite classing", which in the upper reaches of a secondary school means teaching more than one group at the same time.

There is, of course, nothing new about this. Not only is the composite class a familiar feature of primaries but anyone who learnt Greek, for example, in the so called halcyon days before the politicians threw it all away, probably did so at the back of a Latin class trying to master a little Homer or Xenophon while the teacher bawled out 30 pupils whose enthusiasm for semi-deponent verbs was appreciably less than his own.

Senior pupils in particular, in the days when the Certificate of Sixth Year Studies was still a gleam in the pedant's eye, would work for their bursary competition in an ante-room or insignificant corner of a classroom, unbefitting their status as august members of the sixth year.

The difference now is that the practice of composite classes has become and will continue to become far more institutionalised and widespread, especially as the "multi-level learning" that Higher Still is so fond of becomes the norm. The teaching profession will once again have to get used to it.

It is, of course, possible to be cynical about all this, execrate Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State, and see it all as a yet another ruse to prevent the Government spending more money on employing teachers. Such cynicism contains more than a germ of truth, yet my own experience teaches me that compositing can work, and that while it is a less than ideal set up, there are positive aspects.

Twice now in the past three years I have fond a situation where I have had to teach three Highers in the same class at the same time, the Highers concerned being Latin, classical studies and Spanish. The saving grace was that the numbers were small: fewer than 10 in total, but there was still a considerable amount of stress involved. Yet what was the alternative?

This would probably have involved the "non-running" of at least one of these Highers and possibly the eventual closure of my department. As it is now, the fact that I am prepared to attempt such apparently difficult tasks goes a long way to removing any immediate threat to my subject.

The key factor that either makes or breaks the class is the sense of maturity and responsibility among pupils who must have it spelt out to them at the outset that they will have to work on their own for a considerable amount of the time. It is a lot to ask of 16 and 17-year-olds, yet if they can cope with this it will stand them in good stead for university and career. If they can't, then perhaps someone is trying to tell them something about their moral fibre in the academic world.

How then does the poor, overstressed teacher cope with it all? It would be folly to pretend that it is easy, and it is certainly a relief if one of the "groups" is off, so that one is divided like modern Ireland into two parts rather than like ancient Gaul into three. But it does make me see the value of preparation and thinking ahead, of being one step ahead of each group in mental gymnastics and synchronising things so that classical studies students are writing an essay and those doing Spanish are listening with headphones on to a tape while I am doing a difficult unseen translation with the Latins.

It is also compensatingly rewarding. I am never bored, nor do I commit that most embarrassing of all pedagogical sins: falling asleep in front of a boring senior class, as has happened in the past. The main pay-off lies in the permanence and sense of security that the department is given. All right, so the total number of students is fewer than 10, in contrast to the size of the sections for Higher maths and Higher English, which are huge.

But the fact that two or more Highers are being offered for the price of one makes a headteacher far more reluctant to remove them from the curriculum. Moreover, it also shows that you are, like Barkis in David Copperfield, "willing".

The two crucial things are the adaptability of the teacher and the sense of responsibility of the pupil. If these two things are in order, in this less than ideal world of education, progress can be made. It was ever thus, of course. The other factor of "composite classing" that escapes many people's notice is, of course, that it has been the norm over the past 25 years in first and second-year classes.

Here it is cloaked under the euphemism of "mixed ability", but when we have such a disparity of IQ, home background, aptitude and attitude, it cannot be other than a "composite class". Differentiated learning material may or may not help, but it is still a tall order to give a fair deal to everyone.

David Potter teaches classics at Glenrothes High School, Fife.

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