Ethnic minority pupils are often wrongly labelled as having learning difficulties, according to a new report.
The Office for Standards in Education has called for an urgent review into the teaching of pupils with English as a second language after inspections in 20 local authorities last year.
Inspectors, who visited 51 schools, discovered several that had great difficulty distinguishing between pupils whose problems were purely linguistic and those who also had special educational needs.
The report said: "Nearly all primary and secondary special needs co-ordinators say it is very difficult to distinguish between language development needs and learning difficulty more usually associated with SEN pupils. This is especially true for very young children or those arriving late with little English. " Where children had been labelled as needing both language and SEN support, the report said, relationships between both sets of specialist teachers were rarely close enough.
The report went on to criticise the way in which local education authorities monitor bilingual pupils. It said that the lack of a "nationally consistent" assessment procedure undermined the system and left teachers feeling "confused and overloaded".
It added: "Nearly all had attempted to get help from someone who speaks the child's first language. In some LEAs, bilingual assistants receive special training for this. In others, where requests have to go through the central services, the time taken to receive advice is frustratingly long. Most agree that, whatever the system used, it takes a long time to make an assessment. "
At present, assessment scales based on stages of competence in using the English language are the most common methods of monitoring. OFSTED said that this system had been undermined by continuous modification by different LEAs, making national comparisons almost impossible.
The advent of the national curriculum and a common assessment programme for all pupils had confused things even further, the report said. It recommended that only an agreed and established national curriculum assessment should be used.
Pat Keel, head of the Language and Achievement Programme in Greenwich, south London, denied LEA procedures were the problem. "First, advice from the Department for Education and Employment on bilingual children is long overdue, " she said. "It feeds us little crumbs now and then, but in terms of nationally moderating the assessment of these pupils, we are given nothing to work with. And for years now the Home Office has been remiss. In order to apply for Section 11 funding, LEAs must send in annual reports. Those reports must form quite a large bank of data from which the Home Office could pull out advice, compare methods and suggest models of good practice. We'd welcome some national procedures."
She cited the example of Australia, where Government-funded research has produced a national model based on widely varying scales of competence. She said: "I'm not sure if national curriculum testing properly recognises how children with English as a second language develop differently. It's true some of them can stream in later, but only when they've reached a certain stage in their language development. We need to define exactly when that stage is. "
Jane Wallace, head of Shapla primary in east London, employs a full-time bilingual assessor so pupils can be tested in their own language. "These pupils often don't just have a language problem," she said. "Many of them come from deprived areas where expectations are generally low. For children new to the country the entire school system must feel so alienating and frightening. They need to be free to express themselves confidently without the fear of being negatively judged. The DFEE really needs to look at this whole area, because at present many bilingual pupils are not getting the equitable education they deserve."