Across Canada, in fact, holding children back has become
increasingly rare. Instead, children who do not meet minimum
grade standards usually move ahead with their peers — a practice
known as social promotion — while also receiving remedial help.
"Failing students really sends some very damning and negative
messages, which impacts on their entire lives," said Lori Tighe,
director of assessment and instructional support services at the
Winnipeg School Division.
Indeed, studies suggest that flunking youngsters carries
long-term consequences: It damages their self-esteem, doesn't
improve their marks and increases drop-out rates. A 2001 study
of U.S. sixth graders found they viewed failing a grade as the
most stressful life event, ahead of losing a parent or going
"This is, for some people, a counterintuitive body of
evidence," said Ken Leithwood, a professor at the Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
"But for the most part holding kids back, especially in the
elementary grades, seems to have only negative effects on their
As a result, social promotion has largely become the norm for
struggling elementary and middle-school pupils. Children who are
moved ahead a grade without adequately grasping the curriculum
are often given a range of extra support, including tailored
instruction from their teachers.
However, few boards track retention levels among younger
pupils. At the Toronto District School Board, "very, very few"
pupils repeat grades, said Tracy Hayhurst, central co-ordinating
principal for elementary curriculum.
In Edmonton, Ms. Mulgrew estimated that less than 60 out of
6,000 Grade 1 pupils — under 1 per cent — were retained in
2005-06. "And often that is at the insistence of parents because
when push comes to shove, a parent can actually insist that a
Just this week, Mary Michailides, the principal of Glenora
School in Edmonton, met with the parents of a Grade 2 pupil, who
were adamant that she be held back because of her difficulties
with language arts and math. But after Ms. Michailides told them
about the current thinking on grade retention, they agreed the
girl should move ahead.
"Keeping them back won't make a huge difference academically,
but it will make a negative difference socially, emotionally,"
In Halifax, the number of grade repeaters is even lower. Just
71 out of 39,583 children enrolled in primary to Grade 9 were
retained in the last school year. Many of those missed big
chunks of time due to illness or travel or, in the later grades,
"If the students are struggling, they're probably going to
struggle whether they're repeating or whether they're moving
ahead and the key is making sure that those interventions are in
place," said Geoff Cainen, director of program for the Halifax
Regional School Board.
(Because high-school students are required to obtain a set
number of credits, failing a course usually means repeating the
class or picking up another credit elsewhere.)
But among teachers, there is dissent about the merits of
social promotion, with some seeing the practice as ineffective
in addressing gaps in learning.
"I've always felt that you're not really doing a child a
service if you're putting him through," said Patrick Mascoe, a
Grade 6 teacher in Ottawa who himself failed Grade 1 after
frequent absences due to asthma.
"If our goal as teachers is to make sure that kids develop
self-discipline and are always trying to achieve to do their
best, I think it just has an adverse effect on them because it
teaches them that, 'You know what? I can get by without doing my
About this time last year, Mr. Mascoe recommended retention
for two of his pupils, one of whom missed about half the year in
addition to regular absenteeism in the previous grade. Instead,
both children were placed in Grade 7.
In the end, however, neither social promotion nor retention
is the whole solution, said Penny Milton, CEO of the non-profit
Canadian Education Association.
Instead, she said, the best strategy is early, intensive
intervention for struggling children and greater emphasis on
In Ontario, she noted just 84 per cent of Grade 10 students
passed a recent province wide literacy test.
"On its own, [social promotion is] not much of an answer,
although it's probably less damaging to kids than grade
retention," she said. "Both approaches aren't helpful, or at
least they're not solutions to the problem."