Paper prepared for the OECD Thematic Review on Overcoming School Failure: Policies that Work.

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This working paper was prepared as part of the OECD thematic review Overcoming School Failure: Policies that Work. The project provides evidence on the policies that are effective to reduce school failure by improving low attainment and reducing dropout, and proactively supports countries in promoting reform. The project builds on the conceptual framework developed in the OECD’s No More Failures: Ten Steps to Equity in Education (2007). Austria, Canada (Manitoba, Ontario, Québec and Yukon), Czech Republic, France, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and Sweden took part in this project. These report have been used as background material for the final comparative report Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Schools and Students (OECD, 2012), which gives evidence on the policy levers that can help overcome school failure and reduce inequities in OECD education systems. It focuses on the reasons why investing in overcoming school failure -early and up to upper secondary- pays off, on alternatives to specific system level policies that are currently hindering equity, and on the actions to be taken at school level, in particular in low performing disadvantaged schools.

Faubert, B. (2012), "A Literature Review of School Practices to Overcome School Failure", OECD Education Working Papers, No. 68, OECD Publishing.


The age/grade model of classroom and school organization emerged in the mid-19th century and has since become the standard approach to schooling across Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Schools are composed of classes (and classrooms) of age/grade students. Students advance through grades, generally associated with an age, and classes are organized to deliver a grade of instruction. Promotion in the age/grade model is not guaranteed, meaning students can also fail to advance. One indication that failure is an outcome can be found in the OECD‟s 2010 Education at a Glance, which reports that 22 of 26 OECD member countries had first time upper secondary graduation rates above 70% and only a small number had rates of 90% or greater (OECD, 2010b). According to OECD statistics, this means that (on average) 20% of students at the end of four years of secondary school in nearly all OECD countries fail or opt to leave. In other words, 20% of students have not acquired the skills, knowledge or credits necessary to graduate from secondary education.

The outcome of failure in the age/grade model has served as a method of sorting students in educational systems (OECD, 2009). Further, the sorting of students through failing or advancing in educational systems has long been accepted as a satisfactory educational model. Since the 1960s, however, the view that student failure is necessary or inevitable has come under increasing scrutiny. An emerging viewpoint across OECD countries is that education systems must provide a successful educational outcome for all students. Increasingly, it is no longer seen as adequate to provide equal access to the same “one size
fits all” educational opportunity. More and more, the onus is shifting to providing education that promotes equity by recognizing and meeting different educational needs. Importantly, this growing view also reflects a different understanding of the causes of student failure. The idea that students fail because of their own personal shortcomings (academic or otherwise) is being superseded by the idea of school failure.

The cause of – and the responsibility for – students failure is now seen as deficient or inadequate provision of education by schools, and by extension, school systems. More specifically, it is the failure of schools to provide education appropriate to different needs that leads students to fail. In this way school failure is, therefore, also an issue of equity.

This shift in thinking about failure can be seen in both academic and policy circles. The emergent view holds that it is no longer acceptable that millions of students fail in school, especially given how failure may negatively affect their capacity to succeed in their personal lives, the working world, and, more broadly, society. Reorienting educational systems towards the goal of promoting equity has been advanced as the necessary solution to, and redress of, the student failure that results from an age/grade – class/school

The focus on ensuring equality of opportunity to education, which underpins the age/grade model, has come at the expense of not attending to difference, whether systemic in nature, as with socio-economic status, or specific to the individual, where many variables can affect ability and need.

The OECD takes the position that new policies and practices can revamp educational systems and the classes and schools which the systems are built upon so that the effects of difference on student achievement are counter-balanced and, ideally effectively neutralized. In 1998, the OECD released a report titled Overcoming Failure at School which calls for shifts in strategic educational policies to address the needs of disadvantaged groups aimed at “preventing and overcoming the learning difficulties of all young people, as part of a larger aim to attain higher, required levels of knowledge, skills and competencies” (OECD, 1998). This work led to the OECD 2007 report No More Failures : Ten steps to equity in
education, with policy suggestions aimed primarily at the state and district levels to improve equity, and thereby reduce school failure (OECD, 2007). To provide further assistance for member countries to achieve real improvement in reducing failure, the project Overcoming School Failure : Policies that Work (hereafter referred to as Project) was EDU/WKP(established in 2009). Through this Project, the OECD plans to identify and analyze initiatives that successfully tackle school failure, and support countries in implementing policies and practices in
overcoming school failure (OECD, 2010) at the state, district, school and classroom levels. This report is one of a series of literature reviews commissioned by the OECD in support of the third goal of the Project : supporting countries with the implementation of policies and practices in overcoming school failure. To this end, this present review examines English literature on in-school practices for overcoming school failure. The purpose is to answer two general questions :

1) what are the policies and practices that help reduce school failure and improve equity ?

And 2) what is the empirical evidence of their impact on reducing school failure and improving equity ?

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