Learning and Teaching Toolkit

Repeating a year

Negative impact for very high cost, based on moderate evidence.

What is it?

Repeating a year is also known as “grade retention”, “non-promotion”, or “failing a grade”. Learners who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to repeat that year of learning by joining a class of younger students the following academic year. 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 very rare in the UK, but it 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 European countries including Spain, France, and Germany. In some countries, such as Finland, learners 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.

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, suggesting that the practice 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, for students from ethnic minorities, or for learners who are relatively young in their year group (often referred to as 'summer born' learners in the US and European literature).

Learners who repeat a year make an average of four months’ less academic progress over the course of a year than learners who move on. 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 some 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.

How secure is the evidence?

There are no studies that have used an experimental design. However, overall, there are a number of high quality evidence reviews which show that negative effects have been found consistently over the last fifty years in both Europe and North America. The evidence is therefore rated as moderate.

What are the costs?

Costs are estimated on the basis of an additional year of schooling. Costs are estimated to be high.

What should I consider?

Negative effects are rare for educational interventions, so the extent to which learners who repeat a year make less progress is striking.

Negative effects are disproportionately greater for disadvantaged learners, for learners from ethnic minorities and for learners who are relatively young in their year group.

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 (see One to one tuition).

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

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