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To repeat or not to repeat is not the question

The recent National Leadership Retreat adopted a number of resolutions on education. One of them seems to have caught the public’s attention more than the others.

It went something like this: no more automatic promotion in schools; pupils who don’t make the grade must repeat the class and only move up when they attain the required standard.


The resolution was silent on what happens to those who, after repeating, still can’t make the grade. How many times are they allowed to do so? Most likely they would have to drop out of school, another undesirable outcome that would surely be a hot topic at another leadership retreat.


Everybody, including parents and teachers, said that decision was long overdue and praised the retreat for timely intervention.


On return to Kigali from Gabiro, the former minister of education issued a ministerial instruction to put into effect the resolution. The speed with which he did that was unusual for a government department. Perhaps that was a reflection of the magnitude of the problem or the amount of heat he had come under.

There is valid reason to be concerned. Evidence shows that there are many pupils who pass through the education system but appear not to have been touched by it at all.

However by reducing the issue to a matter of promotion or repetition and seeking solutions therein, we fail to identify the real problem and therefore prescribe the wrong remedy.

What is the problem? It is the poor attainment of learning objectives. That is evident in the inability of pupils to read and write and perform simple arithmetic operations at all levels.

And what is the real cause of this low or no achievement and is the cure being recommended the right one?

I think we are looking at the effect of a long list of more underlying causes and the so-called automatic promotion is the least of them.

We will come to these in a moment, but first let us deal with the myth that repetition is the cure to all issues of quality or of attaining learning objectives.

First, we must ask: why do pupils fail to attain the required standard to enable them to move to the next level and so have to repeat a class? The reasons are many.

One, they may not have the aptitude for the subjects on the curriculum. That, however, does not mean that they don’t have the capacity to learn others that are not on our curriculum, or if on it, are not given much weight.

Two, they could be slow learners or late developers who need more time and pace suited to them.

Three, it may be due to irregular attendance, itself the result of many factors.

Four, they could have been badly taught because of a bad learning environment, incompetent or unmotivated teachers, indifferent school leadership, and weak or absent quality assurance mechanisms.

Given these possible reasons are there any benefits in repeating a class? The stated reason is to give learners another chance and more time to reach the competency required. In actual practice this rarely happens and sometimes the outcome is different from what was intended.

And so, before prescribing repeating as a remedy, it is important to look at why this may be misdirected or only a partial cure.  

First of all, the starting point is already wrong. The assumption seems to be that the pupil is to blame. The burden of learning is placed solely on the pupil and removes any responsibility from the teacher, parents or learning environment. Yet all these have an impact on learning outcomes.

Repeating is often dangled as a form of punishment not as a corrective measure.

In many instances, it has been known to undermine learners’ confidence in their own ability. They begin to think they are not good enough or that they are getting too old for a particular class and often leave school.

If for some reason pupils don’t perform as expected, instead of rushing for the easy option (which repeating is) education authorities should look at alternative solutions.

For instance, learners who cannot do well in traditional school subjects because they have different aptitudes should be re-oriented to areas more suited to their abilities. But first, it must be recognised that they have different abilities.

Slow or irregular learners must be given special or remedial attention.

However, all these are not possible in the existing circumstances.

So if there is to be any improvement in the quality of education in this country, we must address the underlying causes of low attainment.

One of them is the large classes in public schools. Classes of a hundred pupils are very common. No teacher, however good, can teach a first grade child to read and write and add and subtract effectively in such a class. These are skills they are learning for the first time and they need individual attention, sometimes involving taking the hand and directing it to make certain shapes.

They cannot teach social or life skills in such an environment.

The teaching methodology is necessarily adapted to this reality. It is the public rally or pulpit address type.

The new competency-based curriculum is meant to correct that and make teaching and learning more student-centred, activity-based and problem solving-oriented. But this cannot be achieved with the class sizes we have.

The solution to this is more schools, not simply more classrooms. Proper management of the growth and development of young people cannot be effectively done in schools of several thousand pupils.

Another issue is the academic competency of teachers. In some cases they are little better than their students. For example, teachers selected to mark national exams write the same exams at the beginning of the marking session. Many have scored less than 60% in the same exams their pupils wrote.

In another recent instance, more than three quarters of applicants for teaching posts, who had completed teacher training, failed the hiring tests.

The easy answer to this is better training and retraining of teachers.

So there are issues in our education system. The search for quality will continue. The debate about what is the best approach will always be there. We shall keep bemoaning our shortcomings. At the end of it all, there must be solutions. But they must be well-thought out and rooted in pedagogical principles as well as practical needs and reality.

The assignment for the new team in the ministry of education cannot be easy, but at least it is clear.

The views expressed in this  article are of the author.

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