IN a busy shopping centre, a fragment of conversation drifted towards me.
"Ah'm no' huvin' it. On Monday ah'm goin' up tae that skule an' ah'll tell them she's no goin' tae be in a composite class next year." I was comforted. At least there was another headteacher receiving the treatment I had come to expect in the matter of composite classes.
June brings the most difficult job of the year - organising classes for August. Our school is full. We have no space to create an extra class. At most stages we have two single-age classes but each year there have to be one or two composites and, depending on the numbers game, they can turn up anywhere. Hence the need for an annual reorganisation.
When we tell the children about next year's classes, there is swift reaction as the message reaches home. Everyone has a good reason for avoiding the composite class. He'll miss his friends, her confidence will suffer, we've just moved house, his granny's got a sore leg. Some try other challenges. A composite class is inferior, they say. An older child will be held back. It's too complicated for the teacher.
I've heard all the excuses - and have well-rehearsed answers to each one.
Our arrangements are clear and consistent. We choose pupils according to reading groups so that we can control the ability range. The classes have fewer than 25 pupils and we promise that a child in a composite class in one year will be placed in a single-age class the next. All the arrangements are published in handbook, letters and leaflets and we keep our promises.
So why do I detest this annual task? Because my confidence is undermined by a sneaking suspicion that the composite class may not be the best arrangement for our size of school. It's not a question of attainment - there is no evidence that it is better or worse. It's about status, curriculum continuity and friendships. Children can feel adrift from the mainstream of their year group no matter the efforts made to avoid it and primary 7 pupils in a P6-P7 class feel it most of all.
Friendships count but sometimes we make mistakes. And I have never succeeded in constructing a rota of environmental studies topics which shows progression for unpredictable composites. None of the recommended arrangements works - they are all geared to schools where composites are normal. Thanks to the Improving Science Education 5-14 website for being realistic and acknowledging that, in some composite situations, progression is not possible.
When I found an overview of research literature on composite classes, I thought that my quest for answers was over. There are composite classes in 78 per cent of Scottish schools and that's not just in rural areas.
Almost half of the schools with composites are not small and many are found in urban settings. Our educational masters, when asked about composite classes, reply that they are normal in rural areas, so that's all right then. Wrong. There are too many differences between rural and urban composites to assume that the lessons of one can be applied to the other.
Size, stability and parent attitudes are just some of the obvious things.
Unfortunately, the research literature is not helpful. Scotland has a relatively high number of composite classes for an economically developed country but we have done no research into their effectiveness. If I were in the United States or Norway, my discussions with parents would be informed by research findings. Since I am in Scotland, I am still on my own.
Probably the quality of the teacher is the single most important factor in running a composite class successfully but I would like to know the educational justification for composite classes in a non-rural setting. It would do wonders for my confidence the next time I hear: "She's no goin'
tae be in a composite class next year."
Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary school in Perth.