With support, pupils with English as an additional language can outperform their native English-speaking peers. Hannah Frankel reports from a school where it's happening
At first glance there is nothing unusual about the group of pupils playing together at an east London secondary school. But the dozen or so teenagers seem to represent almost every known ethnic group. There is a white British girl, a Somalian boy, pupils from India, from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen. The list goes on. And this group has not been orchestrated. At Valentines High School in Redbridge, Essex, almost 80 per cent of pupils are from ethnic minorities, with 50 different languages spoken between them.
It is these same pupils who are likely to be the unsung heroes next week when GCSE results are released. According to the Office for National Statistics, pupils who speak English as an additional language (EAL) are more likely to be among the top performers at GCSE than native English-speakers. At the age of 11, only 7.5 per cent of EAL pupils are in the top 10 per cent of schoolchildren, compared with 10.5 per cent of English-speaking pupils. But by the time they are 15 they have edged ahead, with 10.8 per cent in the top group, compared with 10 per cent of their English speaking peers.
The Commission for Racial Equality welcomes the news that these pupils are doing so well, adding that it helps challenge negative racial stereotypes and misconceptions. "This is the first step in a long journey towards integration," a spokeswoman says.
Although EAL pupils perform slightly worse than their peers overall, it is clear that some are achieving exceptional results. It comes as no surprise at Valentines. Up to 12 per cent of pupils at the school come from refugee or asylum-seeking families, many of whom arrive in Year 10 speaking no English. By the end of Year 11, most can communicate well and everyone without exception takes GCSEs. Last year, 85 per cent achieved at least five A*-Cs.
Five years ago, Shangat Khan, a Year 8 pupil from Afghanistan, did not speak any English. Today you would not guess that he's not a native English speaker. Most of his language support was delivered in class, but he says he picked up the majority of his skills just through friends. "I didn't notice he didn't speak much," says one of his mates. "We just talked to him."
Sylvia Jones, headteacher, says 80 per cent of English is learnt informally like this, although involving and communicating with the wider community also helps. "There's no one person responsible for community links here," she says. "It's everyone's job to reach out to parents and beyond whenever they can."
To this end, Sylvia holds regular coffee mornings for different groups of parents usually mothers accompanied by a translator and a school mentor from that community as an opportunity to answer queries. "The coffee mornings are not time out," says Sylvia. "Everyone knows that meetings have to fit round them, not vice versa. And once parents have met me, they're much more likely to be able to discuss issues with me in the future."
If parents can't speak English, they can always share their concerns with one of the school's mentors, introduced five years ago to tackle under-achievement among Pakistani boys. Valentines now has 12 adult mentors from various communities who act as role models; providing pupils with a sympathetic ear and one-to-one learning support. Last year in contrast to the national picture both Pakistani and Somali boys at Valentines hit their predicted grades.
Haroon Patel, an imam from a local mosque, is one of the mentors and a school liaison officer. Three years ago, Valentines identified a handful of Year 8 pupils who were challenging and under-performing, and put them under Haroon's care. He embarked on a three-pronged approach: mentoring the boys, keeping their family in the loop and supporting their teachers. All the boys took their GCSEs this year, and all are going on to post-16 education.
"When you think about where they could have ended up, it is very pleasing," says Haroon. "I could speak to their fathers or uncles at the mosque, while helping them at school. It was a holistic approach."
Haroon and the other mentors also help pupils put together regular information newsletters, which are usually written in English and the home language. Together with the coffee mornings, it keeps parents informed and involved in their children's education, something that does not come naturally to all. Somalian families, for instance, often view involvement as interference, according to Sylvia.
"They may think it shows a lack of trust in the school," she says, "so we have to explain that that's not how we see it. It's all about communicating clearly."
The school has had to challenge its own perceptions as well. It recognised that some ethnic minority groups were not represented in its gifted and talented club, and set about addressing that. "There were lots of white British or middle class Indian gifted and tal-ented pupils, but hardly any Bengali, Pakistani or Somali pupils," says Jan Pearson, head of the ethnic minority achievement department.
"Key stage 2 Sats might not reflect pupils' capabilities if they are newly arrived, so we've asked teachers to look out for non-linguistic indicators, such as good work in maths, technology or art."
It is just one more way of celebrating what pupils bring to the school, says Sylvia, as opposed to seeing EAL pupils as problematic. As such, the school offers after-school clubs and exams in home languages, and for the first time is providing Polish A-level this year.
"It won't harm their English, and it will give them confidence and self-esteem in their own ability," says Sylvia. "Like all pupils, that's what refugee or EAL pupils really need."
EAL pupils' overall performance
Although English speakers generally do better than pupils with English as an additional language, EAL pupils are more likely to be in the top performing group. Here are last year's results showing the percentage of pupils achieving at least five A*-Cs at GCSE:
English-speaking pupils EAL pupils
White 57.3 53
Mixed 55.7 55.6
Asian 71.5 59
Black 49.2 44.6
Chinese 80.7 79
All pupils 57.1 56.2
Source: Department for Children, Schools and Families
GOOD PRACTICE TO HELP NEWLY ARRIVED PUPILS LEARN ENGLISH
* Make sure you pronounce their names properly, and try to greet them in every lesson. Ensure pupils know your name as well.
* Sit the pupil next to sympathetic members of the class, preferably those who speak the same language and can translate.
* Encourage pupils to contribute to the lesson by using their home language.
* Do not worry if beginners say very little at first, as listening time is important when learning a new language.
* Teach beginners some useful basic phrases and essential terms for your subject. Use pictures or labels and encourage pupils to make their own dictionary of key words.
* Encourage them to help give out equipment and collect books, so they make contact with other pupils.
* Ask pupils for the home language equivalents of English words.
* Try to obtain books in the home language for particular subject areas. Pupils are far more likely to feel confident about using English if they feel their mother tongue is valued.
* Use visual cues such as videos, slides, pictures, diagrams, flash cards and illustrated glossaries.
* Discuss material before reading it. If reading material is recorded on cassette, a student can listen and read simultaneously.
Source: Good Practice Guidance on the Education of Asylum Seeking and Refugee Children