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Nadine Gallacher teaches a combined math lesson to her senior kindergarten and Grade 1 split class at Riverside Public School in London, Ontario, Tuesday. Younger students explore similarities between groups assorted animals, while older ones considered their organization and developed their math vocabulary.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Ontario's full-day kindergarten children are being squeezed into split-grades, prompting questions about whether the province's youngest students are fully benefiting from the Liberal government's much-touted play-based curriculum and leaving classroom teachers coping with the fallout.

A ministry briefing note marked "confidential advice to minister," obtained by The Globe and Mail through freedom-of-information legislation, showed that 261 classrooms in the past academic year housed both full-day kindergarten and Grade 1 students.

Educators contacted by The Globe said various boards, including in Toronto, York and London, have split classes again this fall due to budget pressures.

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Split classes have become increasingly popular across the country and there is debate over whether learning suffers when students of different ages are in the same classroom. In British Columbia, government and teachers are locked in a fierce battle, with class composition as one of the key sticking points. While many teachers say they can manage split classes, balancing the needs of students with special needs in different grades is difficult.

Teachers in Ontario have expressed concern that the free-moving, play-based kindergarten program is quite different from the more structured Grade 1 curriculum.

Also, a split classroom could potentially hold a range of ages, from four-year-olds to seven-year-olds, a huge gap as children learn important social skills.

"It's very difficult to run one class because they are on such dramatically different curricula," said James Ryan, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association. "When you have to split the time like that, it does water the curriculum down."

A key component of the province's full-day junior and senior kindergarten program is that it allows children time to explore through play. The theory is that children can retain more information and will ask important questions on their own. Areas of the classrooms are regularly updated with new toys and play stations. The Grade 1 curriculum, meanwhile, is more structured and students spend a lot more time at their desks. Some believe that running both grades out of one classroom could mean less play among kindergartners because of space constraints and the need to teach two separate groups.

But not everyone is worried. Holly Gerrits, manager of full-day kindergarten at the Thames Valley District School Board, which serves London and the surrounding area, said the district has about 30 full-day kindergarten-Grade 1 split classrooms. Ms. Gerrits said the curriculums for the two grades may be different but they both focus on inquiry-based learning and, in the end, the expectations are similar.

Urban boards choose to have split classes as a result of overflow. Rural areas of the province may not have enough children to fill a kindergarten classroom.

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A glimpse into Nadine Gallacher's classroom at Riverside Public School in London earlier this week showed kindergartners and Grade 1 students crowded around the carpet for a math lesson in sorting toy animals by size. Ms. Gallacher said she has meshed the two curricula – the full-day kindergarten students explored what is similar and different, while the Grade 1 kids learned about organization and developed their math vocabulary. What is obvious in the classroom is the relative size of the students from the different grades.

"We have a lot of small but mighty personalities in here. They speak up for themselves," Ms. Gallacher said.

Education Minister Liz Sandals said in a statement that it is up to school boards to determine how they organize classrooms. Ms. Sandals said ministry officials would be collecting class-size information in the coming weeks "to provide assistance to boards and ensure the FDK model is being upheld." There is no class cap for full-day kindergarten, unlike primary classes, which can have a maximum of 23 students. Instead, the government said school boards are required to maintain an average kindergarten class size of 26 across the board.

The ministry is now looking at how to incorporate some of the principles of play-based learning into primary grades so that children continue to explore.

The Liberals have staked their reputation on the full-day kindergarten program, despite grappling with a $12.5-billion deficit. Alberta and Manitoba have decided against full-day kindergarten, basing their decisions on the cost, while Newfoundland and Labrador recently pledged to implement full-day senior kindergarten in 2016.

The Ontario program has been introduced in phases over five years, with the final phase being rolled out this fall. The government has spent more than $1.45-billion in capital costs to expand and retrofit schools – on top of millions in operating dollars.

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Documents obtained by The Globe show that the full-day kindergarten program is grappling with significant issues of overcrowding, with as many as 40 children in a classroom, as well as splits.

The government, however, has defended the program by pointing to a study that it funded showing children enrolled in the first two years of the province's all-day learning program were better prepared for Grade 1 and have stronger language development and better communication and social skills. But other studies suggest children in a full-day program are academically no better off in the primary grades than those who attend a half-day program.

A richer picture of whether the government's investment in full-day learning was justified will come from standardized test scores this year that will assess the math, reading and writing skills of the first cohort of full-day kindergarten pupils.

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