Repeating a year

Pupils who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to repeat the year by joining a class of younger students the following academic year. Also known as “grade retention”, “non-promotion” or “failing a grade”. For students at secondary school level, repeating a year is usually limited to the particular subject or classes that a student has not passed.

Repeating a year is relatively common in the USA where the No Child Left Behind Act (2002) recommended that students be required to demonstrate a set standard of achievement before progressing to the next grade level. Students can also be required to repeat a year in some countries in Europe including Spain, France and Germany. In Finland, pupils can repeat a year in exceptional circumstances, but this decision is made collectively by teachers, parents and the student rather than on the basis of end of year testing.

In England, repeating a year is currently very uncommon and schools cannot require that students repeat a year without parental consent. However, it is included within the Toolkit as it is a policy which periodically attracts some interest among schools and the media.

How effective is it?

Evidence suggests that in the majority of cases repeating a year is harmful to a student’s chances of academic success. In addition, studies consistently show greater negative effects for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who repeat a year, suggesting that the practice of repeating a year is likely to increase educational inequality. Repeating a year is also likely to lead to greater negative effects when used in the early years of primary school and for students from ethnic minorities.

On average, students who repeat a year fall behind peers of a similar level of attainment who move on. After one year, students who repeat a year are four months behind those who move on in terms of academic achievement. In addition, studies suggest that students who repeat a year are unlikely to catch up with peers of a similar level who move on, even after completing an additional year’s schooling. Studies also suggest that students who repeat a year are more likely to drop out of school prior to completion.

After one year, students who repeat a year are four months behind those who move on in terms of academic achievement. In addition, studies suggest that students who repeat a year are unlikely to catch up with peers of a similar level who move on, even after completing an additional year’s schooling. Studies also suggest that students who repeat a year are more likely to drop out of school prior to completion.

Although the overall average impact is negative, some studies suggest that in individual circumstances students can benefit, particularly in the short term. However, it does not appear to be easy to identify which students will benefit, suggesting that repeating a year is a significant risk.

There are a number of possible explanations for why repeating a year is so ineffective. One is that in its simplest form repeating a year just provides ‘more of the same’, in contrast to other strategies which provide additional targeted support or involve the use of a new pedagogical approach. In addition, it appears that repeating a year is likely to have a negative impact on the student’s self-confidence and belief that they can be an effective learner.

How secure is the evidence?

Overall, negative effects have been found consistently over the last fifty years in studies from Europe and North America, where much of the research has been conducted.

There are some methodological challenges with the research in this area as comparisons can be made between students of the same age (e.g. “Does a 13 year old who repeats a year fall behind a 13 year old who moves on?”) or between students after they have reached the same point in their school careers (e.g. “Is a student who repeats Year 9 more or less likely to achieve five good GCSEs than a peer of a similar level of attainment at Year 9 who did not?”). However, on both comparisons repeating a year appears to be ineffective.

More recent meta-analyses using more rigorous designs have found less severe effects (between zero effect and negative 1 month). However, these studies have also been consistent with earlier research in showing that detrimental effects of repeating a year increase over time and that repeating a year has a disproportionately negative effect on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Overall, the evidence is extensive and reasonably consistent and is therefore estimated as strong.

For full references and effect sizes, please click here.

What are the costs?

The costs are for an additional year of schooling. In the US this was estimated at $8,916 per pupil in 2006. Annual costs of schooling vary widely in England with secondary school costs tending to fall between £4,000 and £9,000, and primary school costs between £3,000 and £8,000. Costs are therefore estimated at £6,000 per pupil per year.

What should I consider?

Before you implement this strategy in your learning environment, consider the following:

  1. Negative effects are rare for educational interventions, so the extent to which pupils who repeat a year go backwards is striking.

  2. Negative effects are disproportionately greater for disadvantaged pupils, for pupils from ethnic minorities and for summer-born pupils.

  3. Have you considered alternative interventions such as intensive tuition or one to one support? They are considerably cheaper and may make repeating a school year unnecessary.

  4. Negative effects tend to increase with time and repeating more than one year significantly increases the risk of students dropping out of school.