Boy in a Zanzibar school. Repeaters tend to be boys from rural, disadvantaged backgrounds. (Photo/ Flickr/ Andrea Moroni)

The Frog-Pond Effect: Repeaters In African Schools

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MOST African countries have made big strides in primary school enrolment, but various pressures push children out of school – poverty, food insecurity, early marriage and more.

But one little-known factor that discourages children from school is being made to repeat grades, particularly if repetition is at the sole discretion of the class teacher.

Statistics have shown that repetition rates tend to be highest in developing countries, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa that have a history of conflict or instability.

In most countries, repeaters tend to be boys, and also tend to come from rural, disadvantaged backgrounds.

Children repeat for many reasons, sometimes to catch up after missing a big chunk of the school year on account of illness, poverty, or inconsistent attendance.

But in many educational systems, the class teacher has autonomy to determine pupil promotion or repetition, and may hold a child back in a particular grade in order that they may master content better.

But the evidence shows that repetition rarely leads to better performance. What tends to happen is that repeaters become discouraged at having to do the classwork again, and also feel awkward at being the oldest in their new class and being left behind by their peers.

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As a result, repeaters actually tend to drop out of school at much higher rates than non-repeaters.

Some countries, like Uganda, have a policy of automatic grade promotion regardless of performance. In Tanzania, pupils are not allowed to repeat beyond grade four, unless in special circumstances like illness.

Automatic progression is supposed to make sure children are not held back unfairly, and also puts the onus on teachers to make sure pupils in their charge actually master the content.

It doesn’t always work that way though. Education outcomes can be universally low, whether or not there is a repetition, or automatic progression policy.


According to data from education advocacy group Uwezo  many children in East Africa (on average, one in five) are not acquiring basic competencies expected of a seven-year-old, even by the time they are completing the primary school cycle.

And where there is no nationally standardised criteria to determine whether a child goes on to the next grade, the “frog pond effect” may occur.

This is an unfortunate situation where a particular pupil is judged in relative terms in comparison to other pupils in their particular class or school but not in terms of regional or national standards.

In other words, if the children are in a high-achieving school, they may be judged weaker than their peers, when in fact by national standards they are quite satisfactory.

The converse is also true: a pupil who can barely read or write may remain unnoticed in a school with low standards.

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