EAL pupils are not a remotely homogeneous group, and we’re foolish to treat them as such, writes Jo Hutchinson

One of the top stories from the recent 2017 GCSE results was the extraordinary rise of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) over the last 15 years.

Here, it was reported that on average, such pupils outperformed children whose first language is English on all key measures.

Given these figures, surely we must therefore be doing a good job of supporting children with EAL? Or, if not, they don’t need much support to thrive at school? Perhaps we should shift much greater attention to white British children in the interests of fairness? This has been a dominant narrative around EAL in recent years, while quietly, the policy focus on support for EAL is slipping away.

Today, EPI and The Bell Foundation publish new in-depth research that disrupts the logic of this narrative, dispelling its underlying assumptions.

Firstly, the EAL grouping itself is really a convenient fiction, an average that masks enormous variation in outcomes between children who arrived in English schools at different stages in their education, with different language backgrounds, and, critically, with different levels of fluency in English.

The EAL grouping itself is really a convenient fiction

The EAL group is better understood as having a mix of high and low attainment, with the high attainers in greater concentrations in London, which then masks the effects and numbers of lowest attainers who experience extreme disadvantage.  We find that over one in ten EAL pupils are performing at a very poor level at GCSE.

Secondly, the GCSE results of pupils over the last few years are not representative of the long term impact of current education policies – as most of these children were in primary school in the era of the Ethnic Minorities Achievement Grant (EMAG), in which much greater focus was placed on EAL provision, along with ringfenced funding. With this specialist support no longer available, we cannot be complacent and sit back and assume that the same set of results for EAL children will be found in ten years’ time

So, what needs to be done to protect current levels of EAL attainment in the longer term, and to support those within the group that are currently experiencing disadvantage?

Our research points to a need for continued improvements to the assessment of English proficiency, and better official statistics capturing the full range of EAL performance. We make particular recommendations for adjustments to school funding, and an active policy towards developing specialist EAL support skills in the school workforce.

On funding, our analysis shows that the incoming national funding formula (NFF) does well in supporting early intervention for EAL pupils in the first years after arrival.

However, the attainment profile of children arriving late in their schooling strongly suggests that more intensive support is needed for this group – we suggest a new ‘late arrivals premium’.

Pupils with EAL need support for longer than the three years that the NFF provides for

For those arriving near the end of key stage 4, the penalty is over two grades per subject in Attainment 8, compared with EAL children who started school in England in reception. The NFF currently offers the same sum for a pupil arriving in year 7 and one arriving in year 11, despite big differences in attainment.

The evidence also suggests that pupils with EAL need support for longer than the three years that the NFF provides for. The attainment profile for EAL pupils who arrive in different year groups reveals that it takes far longer to reach full academic language proficiency, which is needed to fully access the secondary curriculum.

Studies from California, to Canada and Lambeth all suggest that it takes 3-5 years to reach basic conversational fluency in English, and 4-7 years for academic proficiency. Looking at EAL policies in the US, Australia Canada and New Zealand, we found all of them provided a longer duration of funded support than England.

EAL policies abroad are also much more thorough with assessing English proficiency and EAL needs than the current system in England. Perhaps of most concern, though, is that these other jurisdictions have extensive policies for the development of school staff, including specialist EAL roles and graduate-level EAL qualifications.

Currently in England, there is very little national policy oversight of the need to retain current specialist knowledge that grew up under the EMAG, and to develop new specialists to replace those who leave the system.

We may have good achievement for many (but not all) children with EAL now, but for how long?

 Jo Hutchinson is director for social mobility and vulnerable learners at the Education Policy Institute

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  1. Stuart Jackson, former Peterborough MP, used to argue passionately for extra funding to be given to areas like Peterborough which faced a constant influx of pupils with little or no English. His pleas were ignored.
    Nevertheless, Peterborough has put in place policies to tackle the difficulties of having a large number of ever-changing EAL pupils. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2018/01/peterborough-schools-unite-in-song-the-initiative-bringing-music-to-the-city