Performance data on EAL pupils is 'profoundly misleading', warns EPI

Attainment scores for children with English as an additional language (EAL) are “profoundly misleading” and “distorted”, according to a new report.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Bell Foundation want the government to add a “late-arrival premium” to its national funding formula to pay for additional support for EAL pupils, after their research found a “huge disparity” in achievement is masked in official statistics because children from so many different backgrounds are grouped together.

According to 2016 figures from the Department for Education, EAL pupils achieved similar attainment scores to the national average and better than average progress during school. They were also more likely to achieve the English Baccalaureate than those with English as a first language.

However, the EPI’s report ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ warns this “obscures significant disparities in performance” due to the differences between different groups classed as EAL.

EAL pupils are “extremely heterogeneous” and range from British citizens who speak another language at home to refugees fleeing war zones. Key elements affecting attainment include pupils’ first languages, the point at which they arrived in the English school system, and prior educational and life experiences.

Grades are severely affected by when they start school. For example, EAL pupils averaged a C if they arrived between reception and year 7, but this dropped to a D for those who began in years 8, 9 or 10, and to an E for those starting in year 11.

Some pupils also need more support than others depending on their first language. Primary pupils with first languages including Pashto, Turkish and Slovak perform below the national average, even if they enter the English school system as infants, while groups including Tamil, Chinese and Hindi pupils perform above the national average, even if they arrived as late as year 5.

At secondary level, a student with Pashto as a first language who starts in year 9 scores on average between an F and an E at GCSE, while a Chinese-speaking child who arrived at the same time is likely to achieve between a B and a C grade.

Missing records muddy the water

The report also warns that many EAL pupils have missing attainment records, with children arriving just after national assessments waiting up to four years in primary school, or up to five years in secondary school, without any formal national attainment data. The report estimates a third of EAL primary school students, and 10 per cent at secondary, fall into this category. This makes it difficult to truly assess performance.

There is a “severe attainment penalty for pupils arriving late”. Even pupils who appear to do well at first later end up performing significantly worse than peers who arrived early. The EPI said there is an “urgent and unmet need” to provide “intensive support” to those who arrive late.

The research also raises concerns about funding, following the abolition of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant in 2011, which had ring-fenced money from local authorities to support children from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Since the grant was axed, most authorities have either reduced or entirely cut EAL funding, leading to a “lack of specialist expertise”.

The “most potentially damaging” feature of EAL policy in England is the “absence of any national oversight or provision of professional qualifications, staff development and specialist roles for teachers and other school staff working with children with EAL”.

“There is currently no mechanism by which new specialists are likely to emerge under current funding pressures.”