When I was fourteen I went to Germany on a school exchange trip. Not quite knowing what to expect from this experience, I found it somewhat daunting to suddenly find myself in a maths class. Maths was not my one of strong subjects in English. In German, well forget it.
Apart from a general sense of bewilderment as to what was going on, allied to panic when asked a question, I was baffled by the presence of at least one pupil who was older than the rest. He was a boy who didn't really qualify any longer as a boy. I forget now how old he actually was. After the class, I asked my exchange friend, Joachim, what the deal was with the "boy" with the beard. He was a repeater came the explanation. He must have been a serial repeater, I concluded, and when I asked Joachim's father, himself a teacher, I discovered that this was not unheard of.
Repeating a year or a subject was a wholly alien concept to me, though I was aware that my grammar school had something known as the sixth year remove. In the sixth year, what with A Levels and all that, it was presumably necessary. I sensed, nevertheless, that there was a certain stigma attached.
When I first came to Mallorca I was surprised to learn that repeating a year was common. So often did one hear about repeating a year that I took it to be the norm and that it may not say a great deal about standards of education. Insofar as the Balearics stubbornly maintains a lowly ranking for performance in core educational competences, there is perhaps an element of truth in this. But it can only explain so much. There is, I now understand, a culture of repeating.
Germany still has its system - grade retention is the jargonistic term. Some other European countries have one. In Finland, often held up as a European panacea for school education, the system operates but it is only used in exceptional circumstances. In Spain, it can almost seem to be applied willy-nilly.
The case against repeating a year is strong. It is said to in fact be harmful to the chances of academic success. It is likely to lead to increased educational inequality, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Pupils who repeat are more likely to drop out (a big issue in the Balearics). They don't necessarily ever catch up. The negative effects are said to be greater when there is repeating at primary level.
It can be, however, that the effects are positive. I can think of an example of a girl (British) who repeated a year in primary school and is now doing very well at secondary school. The repeat had principally been due to her Catalan not having been good enough.
But the problem where educationalists are concerned is being able to identify pupils who will benefit. On balance, therefore, repeating a year is being looked at as something to avoid. And this isn't just for social and educational reasons. There is a cost attached. In England, the cost of a school year - on average to cover primary and secondary levels - is put at around six thousand pounds.
In New South Wales, Australia, schools are now trying to avoid repeating a year. A leading education and psychology researcher, Dr. Helen McGrath, says that the evidence is damning. It's like playing "Russian roulette" with a child's future. In New South Wales they're taking note of the cost that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has come up with. It is significantly higher than the English figure - 50,000 Australian dollars per repeater.
Closer to the English 6,000 pounds is the cost that has been calculated for Spain: 5,623 euros, which breaks down as 5,738 euros at secondary level and 4,865 at primary. This cost becomes extremely relevant when one considers the scale of repeating. By the age of fifteen, 40% of pupils in the Balearics have repeated. This costs almost 38 million euros a year. The scale of repeating by age fifteen is higher than in Spain as a whole (31%) and way above an OECD rate of 12%.
The regional education ministry's institute for educational system evaluation and quality has issued a report in which it says that there is no scientific evidence to demonstrate positive effects from repeating and in improving academic performance. Essentially, it points to there being a culture for repeating, which was something I had concluded some time ago.
There needs to be a change of mentality, the regional government's advisers are saying. I would suggest that rather more than a mentality change is needed. The evidence, notes Helen McGrath, is damning. The system needs changing.
I wonder if that "boy" in Germany ever passed his maths.