Last year, for the first time, GCSE pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) outperformed native speakers on all DfE measures. This is quite startling, even acknowledging that our definition of EAL includes some fluent speakers whose parents use a different language at home. It is a statistic unique in the developed world.
The standard explanation – and the one that I received hundreds of times in response to tweeting the stat – is that immigrant groups are more aspirational than native Brits. They just try harder, so of course, they do better. There’s certainly something to this – we have decades of sociological research showing that immigrant families are often highly driven.
But it’s not an entirely satisfactory answer. For a start it’s not true for all immigrant communities: the aggregate figures mask significant differences between groups of EAL speakers – and it’s not true in other countries. It hasn’t always been true here, either. Until recently, native speakers performed better. The trend indicates that something else is going on.
Part of the answer may lie in geography. Forty per cent of EAL pupils are educated in London – Newham has twice as many as the whole of the North East – and attainment in the capital’s schools is far ahead of the rest of the country. They’re better funded, have had a deeper pool of teachers to recruit from (until recently) and their proximity makes mutual support easier. Yet research from Professor Simon Burgess at Bristol University suggests the causality is the other way round. He argues, convincingly, that most of the improvement in London’s test scores is the result of a growing immigrant population. Moreover, EAL pupils outperform their peers in all regions except for Yorkshire and the Humber, so the “London effect” can’t explain the whole trend.
I suspect that the answer lies in the interactions between families, schools and communities. Tower Hamlets is a good case study. For decades, many schools in that borough have been majority Bangladeshi and pupils’ performance, historically, wasn’t particularly good, especially among girls who had not, traditionally, been expected to take an academic pathway. In the late 90s and early 2000s the local authority and headteachers worked hand-in-hand with community leaders and parents to change attitudes and build trust. Mulberry High School, a nearly entirely Bangladeshi girls’ school, led by the inspirational Vanessa Ogden, is now one of the best in the country, producing incredible results and a steady stream of students attending top Russell Group universities.
It’s revealing that the one part of the country where EAL students underperform others are Yorkshire towns and cities – Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Rotherham. These are not places where community integration has been notably successful, despite the efforts of local government. It seems unlikely that sub-continent families in Leeds are less aspirational than those in Bow, or that they have weaker community bonds, but there has perhaps been less coordination between those communities and local schools.
The importance of these interactions may also help explain why white British pupils are doing less well than their peers, especially those from the poorest families. After the war, lower-income communities were broken up through slum clearances and dispersed to large estates on the edges of cities. Sociologists and historians such as Michael Young and David Kynaston have explored the negative impact on the sense of community. We still talk, somewhat euphemistically, about “white working-class communities”, but in reality, families are atomised. The cohesion of immigrant groups – because of shared experience and often faith – is lacking. This makes it much harder for schools to work with families and communities to change expectations. Schools in disadvantaged white British areas must work family by family, or even pupil by pupil, when families aren’t able to be supportive.
It’s important to celebrate the incredible achievements of immigrant communities that come to this country. Particularly so because it highlights the absurdity of the xenophobic commentary in our politics and media. But it’s also important to understand why this success is happening, so we can ensure no part of society is left behind.
Sam Freedman is executive director of Teach First, and a former policy adviser to former education secretary Michael Gove