Repeating a school year

As a second half of the year arises teachers continue evaluating children’s progress and it is not uncommon that during parent teacher interviews for child’s readiness to take on the next year’s curriculum may arise. Invariably this leads to the conversation that parents may ask teachers “Is or should my child repeat? Now research would suggest that repeating children has minimal impact.

The work of John Hattie and his book “Visible Learning” talks about retention. We would often refer to the term repeating but retention means basically the same topic. Retention appears to have a negative impact on a child’s progress. However we need to keep in mind that Hattie in his study of the studies, is based on children from 4 years right up to young adults, 18 year olds approximately in a variety of educational settings.

While the research suggests that retention or repeating has potentially a negative impact on students I think we need to assess the value of repeating at particular year levels or particular parts of schooling. 

The majority of parents who discuss “Should my child repeat?” are talking about their children in early years, potentially in prep/ kindy or grade 1 or great two. When a parent asks me should their child repeat the first question  I ask them is “Why – why are you asking me if your child should repeat and what are you hoping they will get out of the experience if they were to have a second year at the same grade level?” If the family member says to me “I want my child to catch up” I pause them there and say we can’t talk about catching up, we should just talk about your child’s individual progress.

Keep this in mind, the parents expect the child to catch up with their peers when their peers are already well ahead of them potentially and they’re already flying potentially. So for the child to catch up to their peers they would have to work at doubly or triply hard so that they can catch up with their peers because their peers are already on an upward trajectory of progress. Once I explained it to the parents, they understand that they need to monitor their child’s progress. 

Parents need their child to feel more confident, they need them to consolidate or they might want to see growth in their child’s maturity. All those reasons are valid for considering whether their child, or any child should repeat a grade level. Once again the research is not overly supportive. However if it’s the parents wish for the child to repeat then I would suggest to repeat in the early years. 

Now let’s discuss the process for determining if a child should repeat a year level or no. As a principal my philosophy is that it’s the parents’ decision. However – they need to make an informed decision. So ordinarily the initial conversation would be between the child’s parents and the child’s teachers, with one or both of those parties starting the conversation around the value of the child having a second year in that particular grade-level.

Following that I encourage the teachers to refer the parents to the principal.  At that point I again have a conversation with the parents around what they hope to achieve if their child was to have a second year in that year level. I then ask them to read a few research articles about the value, or otherwise, of repeating. Once they have read those articles I invite them back for a second conversation and we talk through what they are hoping to achieve once again. Now that they have read the articles they can share their thoughts and make they can make an informed decision

I believe it is the parents’ decision, as they have to explain to the child when the child is 15 and they all their classmates are 14. “Parents why am I older than my peers in this grade level?” “You repeated grade one (or you repeated prep).” It’s not up to the principal or the teachers to explain to a child why they are repeating.  It’s up to the parents to explain to a child why they’re repeating, if in fact that does happen.

So in short, the decision to repeat needs to be a decision made by the parents, based on an informed opinion, which the school will help them make, by providing research articles about the value or otherwise of repeating. Based on experience and anecdotal evidence, I would suggest that if a child is to repeat they should do it very early on in their schooling.

The reason why they would repeat would be to consolidate their learning because they may need to be more mature or they may not be ready to face the challenges of the year ahead. Children do not repeat school to catch up because that is a false impression of their ability to catch up with their peers. So long as they are improving and progressing then that’s all any parent and any teacher can ask of children.

Contributor: Andrew Oberthur

Andrew Oberthur is the father of two teenagers and a primary school principal with over 30 years experience teaching and leading primary schools in Brisbane.

In 2018 he published his first book “Are You Ready for Primary School This Year? which is about building a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry between parents and teachers. His book is available from his website www.creativecollaborativesolutions.net

He has been on ABC Brisbane radio a few times this year, as well as doing podcasts for PakMag.

Author: Sim K