A DfE-convened national working party on English as an additional language is long overdue. Practitioners, researchers and the subject association NALDIC should all be involved to set a strategic direction for EAL, writes Diane Leedham  

They don’t seek it here, they don’t seek it there, the DfE seeks it – nowhere. Is it in heaven or is it in hell? The eternally elusive EAL (with apologies to Patrick Swayze and Baroness Orczy)

EAL learners – that’s one sixth of young people at school in England – remain invisible in the national conversation about education. Considering the numbers involved, changing regional demographics and the knowledge base required to understand second language acquisition, you might expect that the Department for Education (DfE) would have EAL on its radar.

Teachers report high levels of anxiety about the lack of support and advice, but there is silence in the corridors of power. Since 2010, the DfE’s “watching brief” has not only meant an absence of leadership and guidance, but a dearth of expertise on working parties and expert groups. You can’t even become a specialist leader of education for EAL.

Teachers are anxious about the lack of support

The DfE’s most proactive anticipated decision for EAL is a proposed change in census return requirements in October. Schools will need to identify their EAL learners both by language/s spoken and fluency in English according to a five-stage scale, similar to the one currently used in Wales. The fluency indicators represent a step forward but, without guidance and moderation, it’s questionable how accurate school returns will be. How many schools regularly assess the fluency of all their EAL learners, including those closest to age-related expectations? How secure can we be that there will be accuracy and consistency in the returns?

The interim Rochford review recommendations published in December also touched on EAL matters but provided no solutions for late phase arrivals at key stage 2 beyond disapplication, which benefits school data not pupil progress.

Without first language assessment opportunities to support, replace or supplement national testing benchmarks when necessary, accurate assessment of many EAL learners is not possible. All you find out is that the child in question is not yet fluent in English.

The recent white paper only managed two explicit mentions of EAL, one in relation to funding and another in relation to the benefits of using pupil premium. Serious questions remain about accountability for EAL learners, EAL admissions to school, particularly mid-phase, and the way funding is allotted and deployed. Meanwhile, the pantechnicon of educational change keeps rolling forward while EAL specialists try fruitlessly to thumb a lift and get on board.

The publication earlier this month of Education in England by the think tank CentreForum helps to explain the lack of urgency from the DfE. It repeats a familiar narrative about EAL learners outperforming their monolingual peers. At least this is preferable to the language of “influx” and deficit, and is a reminder that there is no research evidence to substantiate the view that EAL learners have a negative impact on results. Nevertheless, the report reinforces a misleading and inaccurate picture. Some EAL groups do very well. Many others do not, including late arrivals during key stage 4 who are not even in the data.

Meaningful analysis of outcomes is only achieved through data disaggregated by stages of fluency in English, languages and ethnic background. There is strong research evidence that EAL pupils not fully fluent in English are underachieving compared to white British. In addition, the assumption in the report that all children new to the UK have “relatively lower prior educational achievement” is wrong. If policymakers read this report unmediated, then many EAL learners are in trouble.

We need to have a working party on the subject. My agenda for the first meeting? EAL data and assessment; funding; sector and support; first language maintenance.