It is generally better for children to be educated with other children their own age. Schools go against this common-sense perception in two ways: they promote able children early and they hold back children to repeat a year.
Repeating a Year
Let’s look at repeating first. It is fairly common practice in Spain for children to repeat a year. The logic goes that, if a child has not learnt the curriculum content of the year and demonstrated that knowledge in examinations, then he should repeat the year. The teachers who promote this practice are not cruel but the consequences for children are not good. Sometimes the final decision to repeat is not taken until the beginning of the new year, after retake examinations. So, the child gets a summer holiday filled with anxiety and extra work and may still be made to repeat.
Children who repeat are separated from their year group and placed in the one below. Their new classmates are most likely at a different developmental stage. After all, growing up is not all about physical size; there are other changes that take place as you mature and develop. These new classmates may be physically smaller, but intellectually smarter. Not only will the repeater have to study the same stuff all over again, he will have to do so with the knowledge that the other children are doing it better than him. A child may have unusual emotional resilience to deal with the humiliation of this situation, but I guess that would not be the norm. Research suggests that it is not good socially and emotionally or academically for children to be obliged to repeat a year when they are falling behind.
This is what the Educational Endowment Foundation says:
The advice from ADEC is also quite explicit with regard to repeating school years. They says that “students should normally be educated in a group consisting of students of the same age group, because research indicates that requiring students to repeat a grade level does not generally lead to the improvement of students’ educational level, attainment and achievements.”
They make the logical connection between the policy about moving up and Special Needs. After all, it is a school’s responsibility to provide an education for children with SEN at their level and within an age group of peers. You don’t give a child with SEN an end of year exam and keep them back for another year of the same if they do not meet your targets.
If it makes sense for children with SEN, it makes sense for other children as well. The school and its teachers have a responsibility to ensure that all of the children are learning. Using examinations and tests as negative motivation is both counter-productive and cruel.
Some free schools get into a mess with year groups because they are just too small to be able to have children educated with their peers. This is a rather different situation to obliging children to repeat. The social and emotional atmosphere in small free schools is quite different to that in a larger school. It is more common for children to play with and study with children who are not exactly the same age as they are. This can give the feel of a big family or a tribe and has some appealing features.
Even so, the idea of progression is important.
What’s more, even though MBAT looks at free, forest and nature schools for inspiration it is not comparable. It is a small school, but it is not tiny. The school years are big enough for most children to have friends their own age, to move up with them and to grow together. We think it is good practice for all schools (and parents) to recognize and celebrate when children meet developmental milestones; to acknowledge the importance of children’s friendship groups to their overall sense of well-being. In school this means moving up a year.
Moving Up Before Time
Advancing children a year because they are bright is just as bad. MBAT will pay attention to children with particular talents and abilities, but they will not be promoted academically ahead of their group. It is simply unnecessary in a school so rich in opportunities and learning.
I have seen schools where children were put into examination classes up to two years early. The curriculum planner had no idea what they would do after. This is just silly. Why on earth would you want to promote children early so that they can take examinations, get their pieces of paper and stick them in their back pocket? It makes a nonsense of learning. It reifies the importance of the piece of paper and diminishes the value of the subject itself.
Examinations are important and have their place, but they are not the same as learning. We want children to be active learners, not cynical examination passers collecting pieces of paper. This is not to say that examinations are not important. It is not at all to suggest that they do not have value as the passes that will open the doors to future education. But there is nothing gained by doing more exams than you need. There is nothing gained by sitting exams before time.
What do you think? Do you think ADEC has it right? What kind of education do you want?