Almost two years ago, Diana Sutton, director of The Bell Foundation, a charity that aims to overcome exclusion caused by language barriers and to improve the outcomes of pupils for whom English is an additional language (EAL), got in touch with me to express her concern that public understanding of the achievement of pupils with EAL was misguided. The government, the sector and many "experts" had banked the educational success of pupils with EAL and were now focusing on other groups – white working class, "ordinary working families", etc. The problem was that many organisations, my own included, were guilty of reporting headline data of EAL pupils, without providing enough context of the heterogeneity of this diverse group of pupils.
Indeed, last month the Department for Education’s key stage 4 performance tables reported the attainment of pupils with EAL compared with those without. On every measure of performance, EAL pupils outperformed their peers. This instigated further commentary about the achievement of EAL pupils – with commentators and policymakers speculating on the reasons behind their apparent success.
Over the past year or so, EPI and The Bell Foundation have been working together to get beneath that headline data and understand what is really happening amongst EAL pupils. The report we’ve published today shows that there is significant variation in attainment amongst this group – based on the native language of the pupil, proficiency in English, the length of time they’ve been in school and where they live. We found that, on average, EAL pupils joining towards the end of KS4 achieve two grades lower (across Attainment 8 subjects) than EAL pupils who started in Reception. For most teachers, these findings will be unsurprising. Teachers up and down the country know that teaching a Chinese girl who has been in school since Reception is very different to teaching a Turkish boy who only joined in Year 10.
Support for EAL pupils
But the funding and accountability system, as well as the political focus, doesn’t recognise these differences. The new national funding formula allocates three years’ worth of funding to EAL pupils, irrespective of when they arrived in the English state-school system. The Turkish boy in Year 10, for example, will lose out on a third of that funding because he doesn’t have enough time left in school.
Other English-speaking jurisdictions that we studied seem to have a better approach. They provide funding for more than three years and have a coherent infrastructure of specialist EAL staff in school and graduate-level qualifications. Meanwhile, policy in England has gone in the opposite direction. Recent cohorts of GCSE pupils benefited from the ringfenced Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant throughout their school lives. Since 2010, that grant no longer exists and so there is no guarantee that we will continue to see the same (overall) success for EAL pupils that we have in recent years.
Our report makes some very practical recommendations about how government can start to address some of these issues. Rather than pitching one group of pupils over another, we need to continue to forensically analyse the data to understand how resources can be deployed most effectively and efficiently to support the lowest-attaining and most vulnerable pupils in England.
Natalie Perera is the executive director at the Education Policy Institute