“I think it is about their thirst for knowledge, and cultures that embrace education.”
So says Andria Zafirakou, who beat 30,000 other entrants from 173 countries to win the 2018 Global Teacher Prize.
She is an associate deputy head at Alperton Community School in Brent, west London, where more than 80 per cent of pupils are EAL, and has seen EAL pupils make “exceptional progress”. Many have refused to view their lack of English as “a ceiling”, she says.
Zafirakou says EAL pupils often bring skills from their own countries, for example, in art, textiles and sport. The latter, in particular, could help EAL pupils mix with other pupils, boosting their confidence in the process and having knock-on effects in other areas.
“We have refuges from Syria who have incredibly well-educated parents and who have incredible skills,” she says.
“You can see that just from the way they hold a pencil and the way they sit in the classroom and are engaged.”
But Zafirakou, who as a pupil herself was classed as EAL because her parents spoke Greek at home, says it is impossible to say which EAL nationalities perform better at Alperton.
“We have children from India who have never been in a school, who have no social skills and struggle to interact, and we have other children from India who have attended fantastic schools.
“It depends on every child’s story. Every child is on a different journey and it’s about finding out what that is and what they’ve been exposed to.”
She says pupils are often “terrified” when they walk into the school building knowing very little English, but that with the right support they are able to build confidence.
“They will find a subject they can stick on to and, once they engage and find confidence, that is the [key to] unlocking the barriers.
“EAL families really embrace education and want their children to have a better life. And they will sometimes spend all the money they can on after-school education and Saturday schools.”