Pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL) have achieved an academic breakthrough, with new figures showing that a higher proportion have gained five "good" GCSEs than their native English speaking counterparts for the first time.
Experts attribute their success to the drive and aspiration of immigrant families, combined with the educational boost provided by fluency in more than language. But they are warning that cuts to funding for the support given to such pupils - one in six children in England's primaries - could hamper their success in the future. Calls have also been made for more help to be given to under-achieving groups such as white working-class boys and black Caribbean pupils.
Government statistics based on results in England show that 80.8 per cent of EAL pupils achieved five A*-C GCSEs last year, compared with 80.4 per cent of pupils with English as their mother tongue. Native English speakers are still slightly ahead on the five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths benchmark. But EAL pupils have steadily closed the gap on the measure since 2008.
The National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) welcomed the change on the five good GCSEs indicator, but urged against complacency.
"We are very pleased that the five A*-C results are improving for bilingual pupils, but we are concerned about the persistent gap that still exists on the five A*-C including English and maths measure," said Nicola Davies, an executive member of the association, which represents EAL teachers.
She stressed that EAL pupils are not a homogeneous group. The majority are bilingual pupils born and brought up in the UK with first languages that are not English. But there are also more recent arrivals, who are likely to be at a much earlier stage of learning English.
Tower Hamlets in east London has one of the highest proportions of EAL pupils in the country. More than 70 per cent of the borough's GCSE cohort last year were EAL pupils and almost two-thirds of them achieved five A*-C grades including English and maths, compared with just 51 per cent of pupils who speak English as their first language.
"In new populations, there is often a drive - a desire - in education that seems to push their children in a different way," said Kevan Collins, an educationalist who until last year was chief executive of Tower Hamlets Council.
"Whereas, in white working-class communities you are dealing with intergenerational issues of low aspirations and not having done well at school," he added.
Mr Collins, who was director of children's services in Tower Hamlets in 2005-09 and began his teaching career there, said that the borough had achieved its success by finding out how to support and "work with the grain" of the Bangladeshi community that provides the majority of its pupils.
But he said that Tower Hamlets had also managed to achieve results above national averages for white working-class pupils.
Ms Davies noted that last year's GCSE results were achieved by pupils who would have benefited from a time when there was more generous financial support for EAL services. "We are concerned that recent funding changes and cuts will have a negative impact on the improving performance of bilingual children and young people at a time when global mobility is increasing," she said.
Last year, a survey of teachers by NALDIC found that more than 60 per cent had seen support for EAL and bilingual pupils deteriorate over the previous six months.
The association is also concerned that such funding is no longer ring- fenced and is worried about a government suggestion that funding could be limited to between three and five years for each pupil up to the age of 16. NALDIC wants to see a minimum of five to seven years of funding.
John Bangs, a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge, said that it is important not to neglect groups of pupils still "bumping along the bottom" such as Pakistani and black Caribbean boys. "The bad move would be to simply say that children with EAL were doing better than other kids and leave it at that," he said.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "It is good to see any pupils making progress, but we want to make sure that those from all backgrounds are doing well."
Original headline: Speaking English as a second language holds pupils back no longer