• May 29th, 2020

Grade retention or automatic promotion – which way to go?

The pendulum had been swinging, the world over, between the two opposing academic promotion policies, that is, grade retention/repetition and automatic/ social promotion. Automatic/social promotion is the practice where learners are advanced from one grade to the next, at the end of the school year regardless of the educational attainment of these learners. This practice results in a batch-promotion cohorts of learners of similar age groups, and presumably, similar abilities, moving through a progression of educational stages. Hence, this kind of promotion, which is promotion by class rather than individual learners, implies that, with a few exceptions, all learners are capable of learning the same material, though not always at the same time. It is sometimes referred to as promotion based on “ seat-time”, or the amount of time the learner spent sitting in school, regardless of whether or not she/he learned the necessary knowledge, skills, and values in the previous grade. Grade retention or grade repetition on the other hand, is the practice of having a learner repeat a grade, because the previous year, the learner experienced developmental delays which made the learner fail the grade.
Advocates of automatic/social promotion assert that schools should not only adapt themselves to the academic abilities of individuals, but also to the broader social and emotional needs of the average learners. In practice it means a shift from a curriculum-centred school, with its exclusive focus on intellectual development, to a child-centred school, that includes concern for the social and emotional development of all learners. It is argued that a learner who is well adjusted socially and emotionally will achieve better results than a learner who is maladjusted (Cunningham & Owen, 2000). 

But critics of automatic promotion argue that automatically promoted learners do not acquire adequate understanding of the prescribed academic content. While failure may be ascribed to laziness; for some, it may be due to a failure to understand the concepts and content prescribed and assessed. If a learner who did not understand the concepts in one grade is promoted to the next or higher grade, she/he is likely to struggle even more in a more challenging academic subject or class. Anderson (2004) asserts that learners who failed, but are promoted automatically or socially, may develop what he termed “learned helplessness”. Learned helplessness is the condition in which a learner does not feel that she/he is capable of achieving a goal, and, as a result, stops trying. If a learner discovers that her/his teacher does seem to accept her/his failing, she/he may also stop trying.

The introduction of the automatic or social promotion policy in the education systems of the world had been necessitated by the circumstances and contexts of the individual countries. In the United States, for example, it was the growing evidence of the negative effects of retention on the students’ self-esteem, while on the African continent; automatic/social promotion was introduced as a result of the demand for access to education soon after the attainment of political independence. 

The automatic/social promotion system was adopted in Namibia soon after independence in 1990, and stipulates, among others, that a learner who does not comply with the minimum promotion requirements for the second time, must be promoted/transferred to the next grade level. No learner shall repeat more than once in any of the primary phases. A promotion committee should discuss borderline cases. In case where the school authority is absolutely convinced that a learner will definitely not benefit from progressing to the next grade, parents/guardians must be fully informed why it is necessary that their child must repeat a grade.

However, the introduction of this policy in the education system in Namibia did not, to this day, resonate well with many teachers, particularly those who were trained in the old dispensation. For example, during my formal and informal interactions with many teachers countrywide: male, female, experienced, novice, young, old, those who teach in town and those in the outskirts, by and large, agree on one thing, that is, the automatic promotion policy has ‘destroyed’ the education system and should be done away with as a matter of urgency and replace it with the retention/repetition policy. They ascribe the lack of discipline among learners, the pervasive low academic performance of learners, and the general negative attitude towards learning and schooling, to the policy of automatic promotion. Generally, teachers are of the opinion that if they had their way no learner was going to be promoted to the next grade level before meeting the basic promotion requirements of the current grade because of what they are going through with automatically promoted learners. As one engages them on this topic one gets a feeling, without any doubt, that retaining learners, until they master the learning content of the current grade, is the solution to fix the problem(s) caused by the automatic or social promotion policy. Former Education Minister Iyambo (may his soul continue resting in peace) had this to say on the policy of automatic promotion:

Automatic promotion introduced as part of the wholesome education reform after independence was aimed at giving slow learners a chance to adapt once they have moved to the next class. However, over the years learners have become complacent and disinterested in learning, thus heavily relying on the system of automatic promotion, knowing fully well that repeating a class twice was out of question. Automatic promotion has done more harm than good, as over the years it has been responsible for churning out half-baked learners onto the streets, subsequently, leading to poor performance in schools and countless young unskilled Grade 10 dropouts. At my appointment I attempted to convince my cabinet colleagues to scrap the programme altogether in favour of the old system of “move to the next class when you are ready” (2009).

Research findings on this topic have bad news for these teachers (and those protesting in silence) or anyone for that matter, who holds the view that it is either automatic promotion or retention that is the answer to foster learning in learners. Unfortunately, it is neither here nor there. Allow to me to share some research findings on the automatic and retention promotion policies.

In summary, research has, over the years, found that holding a learner back on account of failing a grade does not translate into mastering the repeated content. Instead repetition/retention has many negative effects on the learner as outlined above. Promoting a learner to a new grade level without satisfying the pass requirements of the current grade, too, does not promote learner achievement. The profound question is: If neither retention/repetition nor automatic /social promotion, as shown by several research findings, does not improve learners’ low performance levels, how should schools deal with learners who fail to meet the basic pass requirements of a grade at the end of the school year? I will attempt to provide answers to this question in the next discourse.

* Bollen Chataa is a lecturer at the University of Namibia, Katima Campus and writes in a personal capacity. (081 758 5560)

New Era Reporter
2018-09-13 10:11:09 | 1 years ago


  1. User
    mandume nghishekwa

    Retaining students has important consequences both for the individual as well as for schools. Overall, every repeater has the same effect on school resources as enrolling an additional student at that grade and subsequent grades and either leads to compromising per pupil school inputs e.g. through larger class size or to a pressure on public finances through the additional demand for teachers, classrooms, desks and other inputs.