When every word matters

Pupils in Northern Ireland for whom English is not a first language are being assisted in a new service, and Scotland is watching closely

Children in Northern Ireland whose first language is not English are to be supported by a pioneering service operating throughout the six counties.

And officials at the Scottish Executive will be keeping close tabs on the Ethnic Minority Achievement Service, which will be established from April 1.

Northern Ireland's example was highlighted at a conference in Glasgow this week, where several Scottish teachers bemoaned a "fragmented" approach to English as an additional language (EAL) on this side of the Irish Sea.

There are about 4,000 pupils in Northern Ireland's schools for whom English is not a first language; as in Scotland, many children in this category are arriving from the newer EU states.

The key features of the service were outlined by Paul McAlister, assistant chief inspector of the Education and Training Inspectorate (Northern Ireland's equivalent to HM Inspectorate of Education).

These include an initial assessment of each EAL pupil, which Mr McAlister said should have "currency right across Northern Ireland". There should then be targets for, and regular moni-toring of, all EAL pupils. Every school would have an EAL co-ordinator to ensure a consistency of approach.

Northern Ireland's education department has emphasised, too, the importance of interpreters and translation services, which have been allocated pound;100,000 out of a budget of pound;3.4million for 2006-07.

Other features envisaged for the service include a team of fully-qualified EAL teachersadvisers, a website for pupils and their parents with information on Northern Ireland's schooling, curriculum and assessment, and an increased profile for English as an additional language in initial teacher education.

The EMA service plans to go as far as keeping track of workers arriving from abroad so that, when a contract is signed, education authorities are quickly made aware of a likely influx of pupils.

Mike Gibson, head of support for learning at the Scottish Executive, stressed that Northern Ireland operated in a different educational and political context. He agreed with Mr McAlister, however, that there needed to be better links between "top-down" and "bottom-up" approaches, a point reinforced in discussion sessions at the conference.

One teacher said: "I don't think there is a very strategic approach in Scotland, whereas Northern Ireland has taken a very strategic approach."

Another complained that the Scottish Qualifications Authority did not take account of the fact that pupils with little English arrive throughout the school year. The same teacher, however, was "uneasy" about standardised initial assessment along Northern Irish lines.

Scottish Executive officials at the conference agreed in private that Northern Ireland seemed to be ahead in developing a common approach to EAL pupils.

A spokeswoman for the executive said it provided councils with pound;12.5 million to implement the Additional Support for Learning (Scotland) Act, Pounds 25 million for inclusion of pupils with additional support needs, and Pounds 7.2 million for staff training around additional support needs.

All of this money could be used to fund initiatives for bilingual pupils.

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