Evidence for Learning: Repeating a year

Repeating a year

Negative impact for very high cost based on limited evidence
Implementation cost
Evidence strength
Impact (months)

Repeating a year (also known as grade retention”, non-promotion”, or failing a grade”) describes the process by which students who do not reach a given standard of learning at the end of a year are required to join 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. The OECD estimates that around 8% of Australian students have repeated a year in their schooling life. Students can also be required to repeat a year in some European countries including Spain, France, and Germany. In some countries, such as Finland, students 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.

1. Requiring students to repeat a year has a negative impact on average. Negative effects are rare for educational interventions, so the extent to which students who repeat a year make less progress is striking.

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

3. Where students are not achieving expected outcomes, alternative interventions might provide intensive support that may make repeating a school year unnecessary, e.g one to one tuition.

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

The average impact of a student repeating a year is about three months’ less progress over the course of a year than if the same student had not repeated the year, when compared with similar students.

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 at secondary school, for students from ethnic minorities, or for students who are relatively young in their year group (often referred to as summer born’ students in the US and European literature).

Students who repeat a year make an average of three months’ less academic progress over the course of a year than students 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.

In an Australasian context, there remains little empirical support for the effectiveness of retention, and it has been found that repeating a year can be associated with negative academic, social and emotional outcomes. Nevertheless, retention continues to be used as an intervention strategy in both Australia and New Zealand, presumably because it requires little or no change to the school curriculum or structure. Younger students, boys, Indigenous students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds and students from ethnic minorities are most frequently the students who repeat a year.

  • Negative effects are typically a little greater in secondary schools (-4 months) than primary (-2 months).

  • Similar negative effects are seen for literacy and mathematics.

  • Studies have mainly been undertaken in the USA.

Research into the socioeconomic achievement gap suggests that disadvantaged students have, on average, lower achievement than their more advantaged peers. As a result, disadvantaged students are more likely to be asked repeat years or grades, which is likely to entrench underachievement and lead to a lack of confidence and motivation associated with school.

Given the typical negative impact of making students repeat a year, it is not recommended that schools adopt this approach. Some of the reasons that repeating a year might have a negative impact include students feeling stigmatised for failure and being in a class with younger students. In exceptional circumstances it may be beneficial for a student to repeat a year, such as if they have missed schooling through illness or for other legitimate reasons. If this is the case, it is crucial to:

  • ensure that repetition of the year is agreed in consultation with the student and parents to ensure that they do not feel punished.
  • consider how you will provide additional support to students repeating a year, rather than hoping the same approach will get different results.

The average overall negative effects of repeating a year on students’ learning suggests that teachers, schools, and parents should consider other approaches in supporting students to catch up with peers and reach appropriate levels for their year group or grade level. For example, one to one tuition could be used as an intervention to target gaps in understanding and provide additional support.

The costs are high for an additional year of schooling. Annual costs of schooling vary widely according to school size, location and demographic composition. Costs are estimated at $8,000 per student per year based on the average funding provided to a student in a mainstream school in Victoria, excluding fixed costs such as those associated with maintaining school infrastructure.

The security of the evidence around repeating a year is rated as low. 71 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost two additional padlocks because:

  • A small percentage of studies that have taken place recently. This might mean that the research is not representative of current practice.
  • A large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.

As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.

Evidence strength
Number of studies71
Review last updatedSeptember 2021