What is a Multi Age School - 18/07/05

THE AGE Newspaper article of Monday July 18th 2005.

Question:  I am starting to think about what school to send my child to next year in prep. There seems so many different types of schools, and my partner and I are very confused. What is a multi-age school, and is multi-age suitable for any child?

Answer:

SELECTING a school can be quite overwhelming for parents, given that Victoria has such a wide range. Schools vary from independent, public, specific philosophies such as Steiner or Montessori, religious or non-religious schools, and alternative or community-based.

It is good to have a range of different schools and it is important to not become caught up in the car-park gossip where people talk about the supposedly "best school' in an area. What maybe best for one child may not be best for another. Instead, it is important to understand what a particular philosophy or approach means; for instance multi-age schools.

There is a lot of misinformation and confusion about what a multiage approach is. A multi-age school has a philosophy of mixing children together across age and ability. The belief that underlies it is that not all children will be ready to learn the same thing at the same time and attempting to group children according to age and grade doesn't necessarily reflect a child's development or learning.

A multi-age school does not stream children according to ability but encourages a mix of diversity and ability between children to enhance their own learning, and also to show that we are all different. A multi-age school is still required to use the same curriculum framework as single grade schools and is subject to the same requirements and accountabilities as other schools. A multi-age approach, however, is not just how it structures or groups children in a class. It reflects that the curriculum emphasises the academic and also the social and emotional development of children, and how this affects learning, interactions and behaviour.

Multi-age is not the same as composite, although it may look the same in relation to having several different ages together. Traditional composite does not base itself on a philosophy of mixing ages and abilities, whereas multi-age does. International and national research, including my own in 1995, demonstrates that in multiage classes, children learn just as effectively as children in single grade schools.

There is a great deal of confusion in the community about what is and isn't a multi-age school. Even some educators use the term multi-age when it may be more like the traditional composite. When considering a multi-age school there are a number of points you might ask to help clarify matters for yourself

  • Is the multi-age approach part of an overall philosophy reflected throughout the school?
  • Has part of the school moved into a mixed age/grade class because of numbers or a commitment to a philosophical position?
  • Does the principal dearly articulate and explain about the multi-age philosophy and provide information?

The issue of a multi-age school is not that it is better or worse than other schools. It is about what you feel as a parent works for you. Within any school, not just a multiage school, there will be specialist classes, emphasis upon certain things. For example, some schools may hold a musical or be known for their sport program. Most principals will happily explain their school philosophy and encourage you to consider a few schools so you can make a decision about what you think most suits you and your child.

People who have not heard of multi-age schools or don't understand how they work might write them off with comments such as "that wouldn't work". It is important to remember that research and evidence for more than 80 years continues to support the learning outcomes for children in multi-age schools. A parent may decide not to choose a multi-age school, but it should be based on things other than "it wouldn't work'. Multi-age schools do work. About a third of Catholic and state primary schools are multi-age or are introducing a multi-age approach.

Copyright © Kathy Walker 2005

Kathy Walker is an educational consultant specialising in early childhood and primary years and a former lecturer at RMIT University.