The hard-working immigrant succeeding in a foreign land is the kind of romantic story we all love. Most of us want to believe that in our country, people can build better lives for themselves and especially for their children.
It’s why the news last year of pupils with English as an additional language outperforming their peers at GCSE provided such cheer and cause for celebration for many in and out of education, especially coming as it did so soon after the vote to leave the European Union.
But the success of such pupils is not as straightforward as many would like to make out. Their performance varies widely, both between and within ethnic groups. It’s not a given that EAL pupils will do well, either – the good performance of many EAL pupils in the system is not widely replicated, and the same groups can perform badly in other countries.
Research shows that speaking another language, particularly when young, confers cognitive benefits. And we know that parents from certain ethnic groups are highly aspirational for their children and have a strong work ethic.
All of these things are true, but they in themselves do not provide the reason for the striking results of EAL children. There is also a less charitable explanation: the EAL “miracle” is actually the result of missing data and methodological quirks.
The real answer is of course complex, with many factors involved, both in and out of the classroom.
'Everyone had to be an expert on teaching EAL'
The most noteworthy “rags to riches” story is the Tower Hamlets one. There, the now-high-performing Bangladeshi pupils did not always do so well. In the 1990s, it was the lowest performing borough in the country. Now, the area still has the same population – it hasn’t yet been “gentrified” – and has the highest levels of free school meals in the country. But its results are remarkable.
So what happened? How was such an educational transformation achieved? Sir Kevan Collins, now chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, was the chief executive of the borough. He recalls some key points.
Primary schools embraced the literacy and numeracy strategies and developed systematic and structured teaching in these areas, albeit as part of a broad and creative curriculum.
Teachers were a vital component. “We invested heavily in the expertise of all teachers,” Sir Kevan says. “The numbers meant that everyone had to be an expert on teaching EAL: it wasn’t sidelined to a ‘specialist’ unit.”
The local authority leadership maintained a tenacious accountability framework backed up with support, and resources were well used and aligned to deliver impact. “Our schools were well-resourced and demonstrated what can be done when funding is targeted to need.”
Importantly, a community-wide consensus was developed, which involved parents and the community as well as business. The business partnership was significant and the Canary Wharf link was tangible with huge practical support. “At one time, there were nearly 4,000 volunteers coming into schools each month,” Sir Kevan says.
Local politicians made it their number one priority, he says, and always backed education. And schools were given huge levels of freedom and autonomy to shape the character and ethos of their school. “It was diversity without fragmentation.”
As a story, it’s practical, not romantic. It doesn’t provide the “miracle” everyone is looking for. But what it does show is what can be achieved when teachers, the community and business all pull together. And there’s nothing more uplifting, more positive or more heartwarming than that.