The child left behind


Is the retention of students really the solution?



It doesn’t come as a surprise that most schools won’t even consider the parents’ opinion while considering grade retention. There is no proper legislation in place in the country protecting the rights of parents and children when it comes to education


This summer vacation will especially be hard for parents whose kids are going back to school—in the same grade. A couple of days back during a conversation with a friend of mine, it came to my knowledge that her son,who goes to one of the most popular ‘elitist’ schools in Pakistan, was held back in grade three because apparently he ‘needed more time to come up to the grade level.’

Needless to say, the whole family is devastated, not because of the incident itself, but mainly because of the social stigma that is associated with it.

That grade retention is still practiced unapologetically in this country was something that came to me as a shock of sorts. The debate on the effectiveness of grade retention (or ‘detention’ as it is often referred to in Pakistan) is an old one. While it is still being widely practiced throughout the world, people are gradually becoming aware that the negative effects of grade retention can outweigh the pros any given day.

At the end of every academic year, teachers face an uphill task of how to deal with a student who has not acquired the basic grade level of accomplishment. One option is to socially promote these children and then provide them with intensive intervention to fuel their progress. Another is to just conveniently leave them behind to let them ‘benefit’ from the ‘gift of time.

Pakistan, unfortunately, is still bent upon taking the latter approach, seeing retention as the only solution to this age-old problem, especially in the private schools of the country. The most common reason that these educationists present for holding back a child is that the child is experiencing complications because he has not matured enough for the grade, and just needs more time to come up to the grade level.

However, all over the developed world, grade retention is being harshly discouraged, due to the damaging effects it may have on a child that could be permanently scarring. In a 2008 Educational Leadership article, Jane L., after reviewing various studies on the topic of grade retention, came to the conclusion that, “Overall, the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off and are sometimes worse off than if they had been promoted with their peers.”

She also observed that retention is traumatising for both elementary and secondary level students, and often results in students performing worse than before.

Most developed countries are now having discussions about the effectiveness of this draconian practice. Japan, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, amongst other countries, have fully abolished the use of mandatory retention as a way to improve a child’s educational capabilities. In the USA, retention is still being used, but the notable ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act (2002), makes sure that systematic standards and testing methods for schools are adopted and possible ‘intervention methods’ are executed if a child is not performing up to grade level in school.

Why, then, is this obviously flawed policy still being practiced in Pakistan? Convenience is the simple answer. Intervention needs an awful amount of work, on behalf of both the parents and the school. And while teachers here are often ready to place all the blame on the parents, they’re not prepared to work a little harder with the students who are struggling.

Possible alternatives to retention are summer schooling, one-on-one tutoring, special sessions with the teacher, and socially promoting the child, while charting out a plan with the parents to help the child overcome his shortcomings. But all of this requires work, and our schools are just not ready to put in the required effort. Hence,while it is widely argued that students should only be held back as a last resort, it is used as the only possible solution in Pakistan.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that most schools won’t even consider the parents’ opinion while considering grade retention. There is no proper legislation in place in the country protecting the rights of parents and children when it comes to education; they are usually left at the mercy of educational institutions that are well aware of the fact that beggars (in this case parents) can’t be choosers, and hence exploit them in every way possible.

Retaining children is tantamount to setting up a vicious cycle of failure in their life, by none other than an educational institution— a fact that reeks of irony. Children who are held back lose self-esteem, are ridiculed by their peers and looked down upon by teachers. Eventually, they end up performing even worse than before, never to gain their confidence back, in most cases. Individuals who do manage to gain from the experience are few and far between.

How terribly sarcastic it is that retention usually ends up replicating the same consequences that were the very reasonsfor it to have taken place in the first place!