We shouldn't discriminate against learners of English as a second language by placing them in separate units, argues John Landonin response to Seonag MacKinnon's article last month on North Ayrshire's much praised Bilingual Support Unit
If a black child were placed in a school where he was harassed because of his skin colour by uncaring teachers and pupils, what would the response be? To put him in a special class with other black children with similar experiences where their confidence could be boosted, and then send them back into their schools unsupported?
No, the response would be to intervene in the school where the harassment is taking place, to ensure that a more accepting environment is created for the child. Yet, in Seonag MacKinnon's article, "A strange language a long way from home'' (TES Scotland, May 15), it is the first response that is advocated for learners of English as a second language who are unhappy with the lack of understanding they receive in mainstream classrooms.
This is the solution advanced by the Bilingual Support Unit based in North Ayrshire . If the same solution were applied to other children who experience difficulties in mainstream classes - children with behavioural problems, or with dyslexia, for example - there would be an outcry. And yet this policy of extraction is, we are told, praised and rewarded.
What does provision in North Ayrshire tell us? First, that lack of understanding of the linguistic and cultural needs of ESL learners is widespread in Scottish schools. North Ayrshire recognises that this is the case, particularly in schools in rural areas where the ethnic minority population is scattered. This is one justification that the staff of the Bilingual Support Unit gives for separate provision.
We also see that, for ESL learners, inclusive educational provision is not always available. For them the principle of "locate the problem in the child and don't look too deeply for the cause of the problem'' is alive and well.
North Ayrshire, along with other authorities, needs to address the issue of discrimination and inadequate support for ESL in its schools rather than scapegoating ESL learners. This will involve staff development of mainstream teachers, increase in provision of second and minority first-language support staff and more adequate in-service training for them.
In 1986, the publication of the Calderdale Report by the Commission for Racial Equality caused most authorities in Scotland to look again at their ESL support units. Calderdale education authority in West Yorkshire was found to be in breach of the 1976 Race Relations Act on the grounds that it was indirectly discriminating against ESL learners by placing them in separate units. The CRE states that "on the basis of current theory and research on second language acquisition, language withdrawal methods involving separate provision cannot be justified on educational grounds''.
As a result, in many parts of Scotland there was a reappraisal of the structure of ESL support. Today, many authorities see the role of ESL support teachers as consultants to school management and class teachers to ensure that systems and practices within schools do not act to the detriment of ESL learners. This involves giving plenty of visual support and a lot of opportunity to learn with articulate and able native speakers of English as the second language is acquired.
Although social fluency in English takes only 18 months to two years to develop, the language required for full access to the mainstream curriculum takes much longer, between seven and 11 years. Therefore, support needs to be given to pupils for a considerable part of their school career.
English is acquired most successfully when a child's first language has been allowed to develop alongside it. This has implications for provision of first language support, which some authorities are beginning to address seriously.
None of these issues is dealt with satisfactorily when ESL learners are separated from their English-speaking peers in units where the focus is exclusively on beginners.
The number of ESL learners in Scottish schools is growing. They arrive with the potential of becoming bilingual in their first language and in English, with all the educational and cultural advantages which that can bring. But many schools are still encouraging parents to stop using their first language with their children. And often teachers equate bilingualism with lack of intelligence and assign ESL learners to low-ability groups.
How is this ignorance and the poor provision being addressed? Rather than praising misguided enterprises like the North Ayrshire unit, policy-makers need to recognise that ESL learners are now an established part of mainstream education in Scotland. Yet, most government publications do not even mention them.
All new teachers need training to ensure that they possess up-to-date knowledge about bilingual development and that their practice supports it. But the newly published list of competencies for initial teacher training omits any reference to bilingual learners.
ESL provision needs to be monitored for quality and equity, but HM Inspectors' reports barely address it. The publication Languages for Life: Bilingual Pupils 5-14 by the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum is a good starting point, and How Good is Your School? Taking a Closer Look at Specialist Services should help schools to evaluate their own practices. Hopefully, this sort of guidance will soon lead to appropriate support for bilingual pupils being provided within mainstream classrooms as a matter of course.
John Landon is a senior lecturer in bilingualism and education at Moray House Institute of Education