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Schools shake-up in Northern Ireland aims to end ‘composite classes' for children

About 1,500 primary teachers are in charge of composite classes

A NEW shake-up of schools should mean teachers no longer splitting their time between children of varying ages and abilities.

Education minister Peter Weir said he expects action to address the issue of primary pupils in composite classes.

The minister this week welcomed the launch of the Providing Pathways consultation, which replaces the area plans each of the former education boards had in place.

A final document containing proposals for school closures and mergers is expected to be published by January.

Mr Weir told the assembly that almost one in five classes contained two or more age groups.

The Irish News previously reported that as schools try to balance their books, hundreds of teachers are juggling class time between two, three and even four separate years.

Figures revealed that almost 1,500 primary teachers were in charge of composite classes. While this helps schools save money by freeing up tens of thousands of pounds worth of salaries, there are concerns that it could have a detrimental effect on children, both socially and academically.

Some primaries have both P4s and P7s in the same class meaning teachers are having to tutor seven and eight-year-olds as well as handling those aged 10 and 11.

Composite classes have for years been a feature of smaller rural schools where low pupil numbers meant it was not financially viable to employ a different teacher for every primary group.

Mr Weir told the assembly that ideally, he would like to see communities with "a vibrant sustainable primary school where each pupil is in a class with a single year group".

"There are sensitivities with rural schools. However, I got some of the figures, and they are reasonably stark. If you look, for instance, at the primary-school sector, despite the brilliant efforts of a lot of our teachers, you see that we have a situation where 19 per cent of classes in Northern Ireland are composite classes," he said.

"That means that the same teacher is trying to teach at least two year groups within the one class. When you drill down into that figure, you find that 177 classes in Northern Ireland are composites of more than two year groups, which means that a teacher is trying to teach to three year groups simultaneously or, in practical terms, teaching portions of them.

"Due to particular geographical circumstances, those sort of things perhaps have to happen in some cases, but we all need to accept that it is not ideal for any of our children to be in a situation where three years are being taught all in the one go."

Sinn Féin's Michelle Gildernew said her own children attended composite classes.

"They are in an excellent school. I prefer them to get a quality education in a composite class than maybe a lesser education in a class where they are taught by a teacher for the year group," she said.

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