OPINION: The case for letting children ‘fail’ a grade at school

Marg Johnson
Children do better when allowed to experience the full range of life’s experiences, not just ones that make them happy.
Which is why I will never understand the Ontario Education Ministry’s “move the kid along” policy.
Originally, the goal of our schools was to teach children the skills needed to prepare them for the next grade, and the one after that, until employment or post-secondary education. That was it. If you didn’t pass the subjects you “failed” and were kept back a year.
“If you can’t make it this year, we won’t move you on with your friends and you get to do it again.” Looking back, I can’t recall a single person who failed twice.
School was an environment with boundaries and consequences. My parents reinforced that — if we were in trouble at school we were in trouble at home.
Admittedly, in retrospect, some of those consequences were harsh, especially when viewed through the rose-coloured lenses of today’s parents.
I attended Bridgeview Public School, with its capital-P Principal, Mr. Loosemore. I was scared to death of him, and not at all interested in being “sent to the office.”
I wasn’t one of the popular kids, but overall I enjoyed my time at Bridgeview.
Many years later, when my children were in elementary school (they’re in their 30s now) the province imposed its “move the child along” philosophy, and we’ve had to deal with the consequences ever since.
High school graduates are arriving at colleges and universities ill-prepared for higher education. Many must take non-credit remedial courses before they can even begin their academic careers.
The powers that be decided that holding children back hurt their feelings; that it was better for their self-esteem to advance them with their peers at year-end.
Never mind if a child has problems with math, a particularly difficult subject because it’s comprised of units that build one upon the other over the years.
When a child misses one of those blocks, forever after his teachers must adjust their lessons to “accommodate” that child’s difficulties. He knows he’s different, the others kids do too, and the result is often name-calling, bullying, and worse.
Holding a child back a year to master the material allows him to build on successes, instead of compounding the failures. He thus learns that failing at something doesn’t mean the end, it doesn’t mean he’s “dumb.”
If handled properly, it can give a child the courage to take another path, one of success, positivity, and sound self-esteem. Does a year out of a lifetime really make that much of a difference?
When this child becomes a successful, well-adjusted adult he will be able to look back and say, “Heh, it was hard at the time… but what’s one year?”
Sarnia resident Marg Johnson is a retired Child & Youth Worker who worked with behaviour children as an educational assistant at the York Catholic District School Board.