The Issue - English as a second language

26th August 2011 at 01:00
Contrary to some press reports, underperformance is by no means inevitable among pupils whose first language is not English

Earlier this month the Daily Mail put the spotlight on a Bradford primary school where only four out of 417 children spoke English as their first language. Describing it as "one of Britain's most extreme cases", the article said the school showed how many of our cities were becoming "racially segregated", with many pupils leading "parallel lives".

More than 90 per cent of pupils at the school, Bradford Moor Primary, were from Pakistan and many arrived at the school "unable to speak a word of English", claimed the article. It went on to quote local Conservative MP Philip Davies, who criticised Asian parents for allowing their children to start school "with scant knowledge of their adopted home's language".

The Mail reporter does herself few favours by getting her facts wrong, claiming more than half of Bradford primary pupils speak English as an additional language (EAL). In fact, the true figure is 43.5 per cent, according to the latest school census (January 2011). The figure for EAL pupils in Bradford secondary schools is 29.7 per cent.

Nationally, the number of EAL pupils has been rising steadily for more than a decade and stands at 946,580 pupils in England - 14.5 per cent of the school population. This is almost double the figure in 1997, when there were 500,000 EAL pupils.

While this rising trend is a concern for schools that have to deal with an influx of children starting reception classes without a solid grasp of English, there are two reasons why Mr Davies and the Mail are wrong to claim the language barrier is a key reason why areas like Bradford are underperforming academically. First, many children described as speaking English as a second language come from families that have lived in the UK for two or three generations and speak excellent English in addition to their parents' mother tongue.

Second, though they may need extra support early on, EAL pupils go on to outperform those without additional needs at key stage 2. Their performance at GCSE is even more impressive, with 64 per cent achieving five A*-C grades including English and maths, compared with 59 per cent for non-EAL pupils.

"There is a danger in assuming having English only as a second language is some kind of special need," says Sue Robinson, head of Cherry Orchard Primary in inner-city Birmingham. "It is an asset to have an understanding of more than one language. Children soon catch up. The key is high-quality teaching."

Mandy Oates, deputy head of the virtually all-Asian Belle Vue Girls' School in Bradford, a specialist language college, says that growing up in families that speak languages other than English can help children learn other languages such as French, Spanish and Italian. "Our students have a good capacity for learning languages and that stems from them having more than one language up their sleeve when they start secondary school," she says.

A key issue for schools is how they can capitalise further on the rich heritage of diverse communities at a time when they are facing severe budget cuts. The Government is consulting on ending additional funding for EAL pupils after the age of seven and providing extra cash through the new pupil premium to help disadvantaged pupils instead. The funding change may be bad news for schools with high numbers of EAL pupils but at least points to the real reason why some inner-city schools struggle. It is poverty rather than race that is the real issue.

First-language facts

- One in six primary pupils (16.8 per cent) in England does not speak English as their first language.

- One in eight secondary pupils (12.3 per cent) in England do not speak English as their first language.

- The total number of primary and secondary pupils who speak English as an additional language is 946,580.

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