Split classing, Australian education’s dirty little secret.

Split classing, Australian education’s dirty little secret.

As a parent familiar with the ‘split’ or ‘composite’ classing structure in Australia, I imagine it’s a source of discomfort when dropping your child off to school on an icy Monday morning. Whilst in theory a composite class seems advantageous, the jury is very much out as to whether a student stands to actually gain from the practice. 

Education expert Tim Heinecke maintains that split classing is a necessity not a gimmick in lower social economic areas, ‘if there were no composite classes, there would be difficulty staffing all classes, this is more common in rural areas… some would be full to the brim and others quite empty, which then brings up the problem of equity.’

In Victoria nearly half of the state’s primary students are taught in composite grades, with some schools including Roberts McCubbin Primary in Box Hill South, operating top to bottom in a composite structure. Many consider composite classrooms the most optimal for student learning.

Historically split classing is common practice in low enrolment and rural schools. Schools that (as we know) almost always operate under-staffed, under-resourced, with inferior infrastructure and with an arm, and a leg tied behind their back. And frankly why wouldn’t they? Given their financial restraints and the systematic lack of support, if the government gives the green light to split classing, then that’s enough to employ arguably the most cost-effective enrolment solution.

But what if I told you that the government is wrong. Yes, shocking I know. 

The federal government maintains that split classing is formed only in schools where it’s determined ‘that the mixing of children at different ages is both educationally and socially beneficial.’ So, if I told you that the majority of public schools, and even some established private schools (which turnover in excess of $100 million a year) use this method, would you be surprised? 

I wouldn’t if the split classing method was actually implemented the way it was initially designed, but as a teacher from NSW told me with over 30 years in the industry, ‘split classing is the NSW’s government dirty little secret.’ 

Say for example a particular school has a larger intake of year 3 students and a smaller enrolment of year 4, in order to keep the class size to an optimal number the school will opt to run one Year 3 class and a composite class with both Year 3 and Year 4 students. Selection is carried out after a ‘great deal of agonising [and] lots of engineering, teachers do everything they can to make sure the right kids are with the right fit.’ 

Academically speaking, there is great fear for children that are unable to keep up with the rest and become overlooked. The chance for younger students to slip through the cracks of the curriculum is far higher with friendship groups suffering and bullying a mainstay. Specialised teaching is challenging for older students with many not receiving the challenge needed to further their skills, with parents sold on the opportunity to ‘practice and reinforce skills as they teach to younger students, acting as a role model for their peers.’ 

What many don’t know is that yes composite teaching may be suitable for the right bunch of students in the right school, but the real reason why it’s so popular is that it provides an extremely easy way for schools to cater for teacher leave. 

Per annum, teachers deservedly receive 12 weeks paid leave, an arbitrary number at best. Teachers go above and beyond the 8 hour a day schedule to ensure their students receive the highest level of teaching they can provide. Not to mention the countless hours spent over the weekend and on school holidays.

What they perhaps don’t understand though, the days they call in sick, many schools opt to divide their class and send them to either the year above or the year below as oppose to hiring a relief teacher. Why? It’s cheaper. Why pay the teachers leave and the cost of a relief teacher when you can just simply divide the class up? 

Wandering through many public school classes on the final few days and weeks of term, you’ll find many divided and sent elsewhere. Now what exactly do these students do in the other classes if they teachers aren’t prepared for a composite class? According to a relief teacher in NSW, they do absolutely nothing. 

‘Crosswords, colouring in, times tables, sent to the library, anything that could be done to occupy these students for a day, was done. They would come in, sit there, and pray to god that they had something to do.’ 

So what if it’s just one day before the end of term? Students aren’t really focused anyway. But if its 20 teachers taking a sick day across the state, and there is either no relief teachers or a school would rather split the class, that’s 20 x 5 hour school days. That’s 100 hours of crosswords and staring at the wall. ‘It’s deplorable.’

Everyone’s aware that the Australia has recorded its worst statistical performance on record, and is it a surprise? ‘Of course the standards are low, children aren’t being taught. Split classes do nothing, they are baby sat.’

Every time a teacher calls in sick it is mandatory for administration staff to fill out a green form officially documenting leave. Our curious teacher once came across a box of green forms one school day. He was stunned. Weeks and weeks of classes did not have a teacher. Meaning every time a school chose to split the class over hiring a relief teacher. Year 2’s, Year 4’s, Year 5’s, every year level. 

To me this was a shock. The federal government insists that split classing is only used in schools where ‘the mixing of children at different ages is both educationally and socially beneficial.’ But I can’t help but think that, sadly, your children’s school’s financial security is unequivocally prioritised over your child’s education. 

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