eBASE, effective basic services:Repeating a Year Local Summary

Repeating a Year Local Summary

Summary of the research evidence on the impact of Repeating a Year on the educational attainment of school pupils in sub-Saharan Africa


The text below is a summary of the research evidence on the impact of Repeating a year on the educational attainment of school pupils in sub-Saharan Africa. It is an analysis of individual studies of repeating a year in sub-Saharan Africa. The information here is valuable for African school leaders, administrators and policy makers. It is even more valuable for parents who maybe thinking of better ways to improve on the educational attainment of their children.

Effective Basic Services (eBASE) Africa developed this summary using available research evidence while also taking into consideration prominent themes arising from key informant interviews (KII) and focus group discussions (FGD), particularly FGD with teachers and students. This implies the presence and participation of all key stakeholders; the policy makers, the implementers or enforcers of policy and the beneficiaries. The research evidence in this summary is acquired from a detailed and replicable search protocol used on a wide range – listed below – of research databases for related studies in low- and middle-income countries in general and sub-Saharan Africa in particular.

Definition of Strand

For failure to meet a given standard of learning at the end of the year, some students are usually required to repeat the year by joining a class of younger students the following year. Repeating a year is also known as grade retention”, non-promotion”, or failing a grade” and at the secondary school level may be limited to some subjects the student has not passed (Higgins, et al., 2016).

Summary of the research in Sub-Saharan Africa

The impact of repeating a year on learners’ academic success has rarely been questioned in many SSA countries despite some evidence that it increases dropout rates. Colonization had a key role in the education policy of different countries in SSA. Education systems and their practices of year group promotion were adopted from colonial administrators. Francophone and Lusophone countries generally continued to practice repetition, while most Anglophone countries followed the patterns of automatic promotion, unless for particular instances like a child missing a lot of the school year for various reasons (Ndaruhutse, 2008). Comparing primary school completion rates and repetition rates for 45 Francophone and Anglophone countries from the Program on the Analysis of Education Systems of the Conference of the Ministers of Education of French-Speaking Countries (PASEC) in Senegal, (Bernard et al., 2005)) found that in 2002, Anglophone countries had an average repetition and completion rates of 8.5% and 70.3% respectively, while Francophone countries had much higher average repetition and lower completion rates, totaling 18% and 51.3% respectively.

Eboatu (2017) in a comparative study conducted in the Anambra state of Nigeria, investigated the impact of class repetition and mass promotion on students’ academic achievement. There was a 27% significant improvement in the academic achievement of Junior Secondary School (JSS1) students who repeated compared to a 100% failure rate in both the mass promoted students and students who repeated prior to repetition. A follow-up analysis of these students as they all progressed to Junior Secondary School (JSS2) showed that the exams pass rate of the group of students who repeated was 48% compared to 20.59% among their counterparts who were mass promoted.

In rural Malawi, a study aimed at evaluating the difference in the academic achievement of students that were promoted to the next grade, and those who repeated the last grade, showed that the highest influence on grade repetition was low achievement. Even though those who repeated a grade had lower achievement than those promoted, other factors that varied across individual teachers and schools were shown to influence repetition (Taniguchi, 2015).

Most studies within the SSA context tend to look at class repetition alongside the likelihood of school dropout (Branson et al., 2014; Grossen et al., 2017a; Mingat et al., 2005). A Path analysis carried out using data from the UNESCO Institute of statistics explored the associations between educational inputs and primary education completion in Sub-Saharan Africa. Class retention had a significant negative direct and indirect relationship with student primary school completion, indicating a moderate association between class retention with students failing to complete primary school (Ruff, 2016). Grossen et al., 2017 also highlighted the fact that there is a high risk of repeatedly retained learners dropping out of school, with approximately 60% of learners that enter the schooling system completing Grade 12; while 40% of the learners drop out of the system after repeated failure. On the contrary Kabay (2016) found out that repeating a year did not have a significant association with dropout, while suggesting that a child’s age could be a significant confounder when trying to explain the relationship between repeating a year and dropping out.

According to some statistical estimates from SSA, girls, families in the lowest poverty quintile, children from rural areas and boys from poorer households feel the effects of repetition the most (Berete et al., 2005; Ikeda, 2005; Motala et al., 2009). Children who belong to these groups are most likely to drop out of school after having previously repeated a grade (Mingat et al., 2005). Post-conflict countries like Burundi, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda recorded higher rates of class repetition (Unesco, 2001).

Exploring teacher beliefs on grade repetition in South Africa, Walton (2018) found that teachers often perceive cognitive development to be the result of learners’ maturation over time, meaning additional time leads to maturity’ which is beneficial to the learner (Walton, 2018). This finding contrasts with results from a study among township schools in South Africa that indicates there was no significant difference in career maturity level between retained and on track” learners (Grossen et al., 2017).


In SSA, there is limited evidence on the effectiveness of class repetition or class retention on student attainment, despite the continuous practice of this intervention in many SSA countries. This practice is common in Francophone and Lusophone African countries, but much less frequently used in Anglophone African countries.

Positive impact of class repetition has been found in Nigeria where students who repeated the JSS1 exams outperformed their peers who were mass promoted even after initially failing the exams. The same group of students who repeated also recorded better results at JSS2 exams.

Most researchers have however looked at class repetition alongside the likelihood of school dropout in SSA, with findings indicating that there is a high probability of children dropping out of school as a result of repeating a class. However, another study emphasized on the need to consider the child’s age when trying to explain the relationship between repeating a year and dropping out as age could act as a confounder. Repeating a class was prominent among girls, children in rural areas and children from families in the lowest poverty quantile; dropout rates were also seen to be higher amongst these groups.

A few studies indicated that there was no significant difference in career or occupational maturity level between retained and on track” learners, and therefore no difference in attainment.

Despite the lack of robust evidence on the effectiveness of repeating a class, this practice is still commonplace in most countries in SSA. More robust research (randomized controlled trials) is needed in this area to better inform policy makers on the impact of class repetition on the educational attainment and occupational development in later life.

Impact, Security, and Cost of Local Evidence

The evidence on the impact of repeating a year on the African continent is mixed. While one study indicated positive outcomes, many others associate retention with dropouts and low completions rates. A randomized evaluation is worthwhile given the prevalence of this phenomenon within the SSA region.

The evidence security is extremely limited and the cost of repeating a year with is likely to be very high.

Search Terms

Repeating a year, repeat, repeating a class, repeat a class, grade retention, grade repetition, non promotion, holding back

Databases searched

Web of Science

Google Scholar


Education Research Complete


ECO EBSCO (ERIC, BEI, Education Abstract, Education Administration Abstract)

Taylor and Francis


Berete, H., Diawara, B., Sow, S., Yattara, A. S., Amelewonou, K., Brossard, M., Foko, B., Ledoux, B., Mingat, A., & Rakotomalala, R. (2005). Le systeme educatif Guineen: Diagnostic et perspectives pour la politique educative dans le Contexte de constraintes macro-economiques fortes et de reduction de la pauvrete. The World Bank.

Bernard, J.-M., Simon, O., & Vianou, K. (2005). Le redoublement: Mirage de l’école africaine. Grade Repetition: Mirage of the African School.

Branson, N., Hofmeyr, C., & Lam, D. (2014). Progress through school and the determinants of school dropout in South Africa. Development Southern Africa, 31(1), 106 – 126.

Eboatu, V. N. (2017). Comparative Study of the Impact of Class Repetition and Mass Promotion on Students’ Academic Achievement in Anambra State.

Grossen, S., Grobler, A. A., & Lacante, M. (2017a). Repeated retention or dropout? Disputing Hobson’s choice in South African township schools. South African Journal of Education, 37(2).

Ikeda, M. (2005). Grade repetition and its effect on performance in SACMEQ countries. International Invitational Educational Policy Research Conference Proceedings.

Kabay, S. (2016). Grade repetition and primary school dropout in Uganda. Harvard Educational Review, 86(4), 580 – 606.

Mingat, A., Rakotomalala, R., & Kengne, V. M. (2005). Cote‑d’Ivoire-Rapport d’Etat du Systeme Educatif Ivoirien: Elements d’analyse pour instruire une politique educative nouvelle dans le contexte de l’EPT et du PRSP. The World Bank.

Motala, S., Dieltiens, V., & Sayed, Y. (2009). Physical access to schooling in South Africa: Mapping dropout, repetition and age-grade progression in two districts. Comparative Education, 45(2), 251 – 263. ehh.

Ndaruhutse, S. (2008). Grade repetition in primary schools in Sub-Saharan Africa: An evidence base for change.

Ruff, R. R. (2016). The Impacts of Retention, Expenditures, and Class Size on Primary School Completion in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Cross-National Analysis. International Journal of Education Policy and Leadership, 11(8), n8.

Taniguchi, K. (2015). Determinants of grade repetition in primary school in sub-Saharan Africa: An event history analysis for rural Malawi. International Journal of Educational Development, 45, 98 – 111. ehh.

Unesco. (2001). Overcoming Exclusion Through Inclusive Approaches in Education: A Challenge and a Vision: Conceptual Paper for the Education Sector. UNESCO.

Walton, E. (2018). Teacher beliefs about grade repetition: An exploratory South African study. Citizenship Teaching & Learning, 13(1), 45 – 60.