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

Marg Johnson
Children do best when they are allowed the full range of life experiences, not just those that make them happy.
This is why I will never understand the policy of the Ontario Ministry of Education to “move the child forward”.
The original purpose of our schools was to teach children the skills necessary to prepare them for the next year, and the year after, until employment or post-secondary education. That was it. If you didn’t pass the subjects, you “failed” and were held back for a year.
“If you can’t do it this year, we won’t move you and your friends and you can do it again.” Looking back, I don’t remember a single person who failed twice.
School was an environment with limits and consequences. My parents reinforced this – if we had problems at school, we had problems at home.
Certainly, in retrospect, some of those consequences have been harsh, especially when viewed through the pink lenses of today’s parents.
I attended Bridgeview Public School, with its capital-P headmaster, 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 stay at Bridgeview.
Many years later, when my children were in elementary school (now in their thirties), the province imposed its “moving the child forward” philosophy, and we have had to deal with the consequences ever since.
High school graduates arrive at colleges and universities ill-prepared for higher education. Many must take non-credit remedial courses before they can even begin their college careers.
Powers that decide to hold children back hurt their feelings; that it was better for their self-esteem to make them progress with their peers at the end of the year.
It does not matter if a child has problems with mathematics, a particularly difficult subject because it is made up of units that build on each other over the years.
When a child misses one of these blocks, their teachers must always adjust their lessons to “fit” that child’s difficulties. He knows he’s different, the other kids too, and the result is often name-calling, bullying, and worse.
Holding back a one-year-old to master the material allows him to build on the successes, instead of compounding the failures. He thus learns that failing at something does not mean the end, it does not mean that he is “mute”.
If handled correctly, it can give a child the courage to take another path, one of success, positivity and good self-esteem. Does a year in a lifetime really make such a big difference?
When that child grows into a successful, well-adjusted adult, they can look back and say, “Hey, that was tough back then…but what’s a year?”
Sarnia resident Marg Johnson is a retired child and youth worker who worked with behavioral children as an educational assistant with the York Catholic District School Board.

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