112 students, one classroom
Inaburra school in Sydney's south has placed all year 5 and 6 students into an open-plan room with five teachers.
If you stuck your head into a classroom at Inaburra School in Sydney's south, you might see 112 students scattered around a giant space, doing maths exercises on their iPads. Or you might see an English class with 50 students and, across the room, a different teacher working with six students.
Since the beginning of the year, the private school has turned the traditional concept of a classroom on its head and put all year 5 and 6 students into an open-plan room with five teachers.
"Teachers and students are grouped for learning in a way that's more fluid and flexible than in the traditional rectangular classroom," principal Tim Bowden said.
Throughout the day, students have three sessions with regular teachers covering literacy, numeracy, history, geography and science, and one lesson with a specialist teacher in areas such as music, PDHPE and robotics.
But instead of pairing 20 students with one teacher, groups are configured according to need.
"In lessons involving direct instruction, teachers can teach 40 or 50 students as easily as 20," Mr Bowden said.
"But with numeracy, for example, we know these 10 students need remedial work and one teacher can take them aside while a different teachers takes all the students who are on track.
"It's a recognition that students learn at difference paces."
At NSW state schools, the number of students in multi-age or composite classes has grown twice as fast as enrolments, with the NSW Department of Education attributing the shift to a variety of factors including enrolment patterns and school preference.
The number of students in composite classes grew 4 per cent between 2015 and 2016, compared to a 2 per cent growth in student numbers, according to a FairfaxMedia analysis of the Department's latest figures.
Roughly one in three students in greater Sydney are in composite classes - a figure rising to one in two across the rest of the state.
Sydney schools with the fastest adoption of composite classes include Grose View Public School in Sydney's north west, which went from having no multi-age classes in 2010 to having 83 per cent of its students in composite classes in 2016.
Similarly, the neighbouring Kurmond Public School went from having 10 per cent of its students in composite classes in 2010 to 88 per cent in 2016, and at Chullora Public School in Sydney's west, the share leapt from 8 per cent to 86 per cent.
However, some schools have moved in the other direction and significantly reduced composite classes. At Parklea Public School, the number of students in composite classes plunged from 84 per cent in 2010 to less than 9 per cent in 2016.
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Education said principals were responsible for choosing class structures.
"[Multi-age or composite classes] may be established because of the uneven pattern of enrolment in the school, because of the small size of the school or where it's considered that mixing students of different ages is academically and socially advantageous," he said.
"The key finding from research is that the type of class [organisation] will not determine either educational advantage or disadvantage."
A negative perception of composite classes among parents is still an issue for schools but these opinions "often change once their children are already in the class", Linley Cornish, a leading researcher in the field, said.
The multi-age approach is also better for teaching and learning, according to Associate Professor Cornish, who is chair of teaching and learning at the University of New England
"Even when you've got single-grade classes with 10-year olds, you'll have some kids working at the nine-year-old level, and some at an 11-year-old level," Associate Professor Cornish said.
"With mixed-grade classes, there's a much more overt recognition of different learning needs."
However, schools should either move all classes to a composite structure, or none, Associate Professor Linley Cornish said.
"Schools only having some composite classes sets up a stigma, and parents start to think, 'should my child be in a different class, is my child being disadvantaged?'," she said.
"It's also better for the teachers. If you've got some mixed and some single-grade classes, you've got to be much more careful about the work you give in the composite class so they don't repeat it the following year in a single-grade class."
At Inaburra, Mr Bowden said daily lessons with a specialist teacher give permanent teachers time to collaborate, something teachers at most schools are able to do less often and only outside class time.
"Teaching is improved when it's not a solo practice, teachers working in the presence of one another can give each other feedback and support," Mr Bowden said.
He said teachers, students and parents are happy with the change so far.
"It's only been five months but the response is very positive. No one's left the school."