A backwards step for EAL

Written by: Professor Steve Strand & Diana Sutton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

New research demonstrates why the Department for Education should heed the evidence and reintroduce a record of proficiency in English in the School Census

New research provides evidence on why the decision taken by the Department for Education (DfE) in June to withdraw the requirement for schools to record the proficiency in English of their English as an additional language (EAL) learners in the School Census is a retrograde step (Strand & Hessel, 2018).

This and previous research, provide evidence on the diversity of the EAL cohort. The term EAL encompasses pupils with a wide range of language skills, from new arrivals to the country with little or no English to third generation students with a heritage language but also fully fluent in English.

For example, Sahra is a Somali refugee who has fled war and is recovering from trauma, she has had limited education and limited literacy in her first language.

Sahra is not distinguished from Xin, the daughter of an English father and Chinese mother who has been schooled entirely within the English system, but is also recorded as EAL.

This range of language skills among students with EAL will be well-known to classroom teachers, but until recently schools in England were not required to assess this.

While the DfE proficiency scale essentially provides a screening tool which assesses learners on a band from A (New to English) to E (Fluent), its introduction ensured that schools began to take a more robust approach to the assessment of EAL learners. This five-point scale has been in use in all schools in Wales since 2009 and remains a statutory requirement in Wales.

However, in June 2018, the DfE published the latest version of the School Census (2018/19) guidance which stated that the collection of data on proficiency in English is “no longer required” and is removed “from spring 2019 onwards”.

Although reporting on “proficiency” has been removed, schools are still required to report on the number of EAL learners in order to calculate the funding that is allocated to schools through the EAL factor in the funding formula.

This additional funding (£515 per primary and £1,385 per secondary pupil) allows teachers to target tailored support for EAL pupils. However, since the removal of the ringfence in 2011 this is mainstreamed into general schools’ funding.

The new report provides clear evidence on why recording EAL status alone tells us very little and that it is the proficiency in English that is key to understanding the needs of an EAL learner.

Although the requirement to record proficiency in English was in place for two years the data was not made available in the National Pupil Database (NPD) and so it is not possible to access the requisite detail to answer key questions like:

  • What factors are associated with the proficiency in English of EAL pupils?
  • Is the proficiency in English of EAL pupils linked to their educational attainment at age 5, 7, 11 and 16?
  • How much of the variation between EAL pupils’ in their attainment can be explained by their proficiency in English?

The new report set out to answer these questions. The findings and recommendations are relevant to all teachers of EAL learners as they provide robust evidence and show a conclusive link between proficiency in English and educational attainment. It makes clear that continuing to assess the proficiency in English of EAL learners will help schools to provide tailored support.

Through analytical modelling the report shows that English proficiency can explain up to 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement. This figure is much higher than the typical three to four per cent variation that can be statistically explained using other characteristics, such as gender, free school meal status and ethnicity.

The report also identifies that pupils’ attainment increases with greater English proficiency, indicating a strong link between proficiency in English and educational attainment. This can be seen through pupils at the New to English or Early acquisition stage attaining below the national average, those at Developing competence attaining very close to the national average, while those at the Competent or Fluent stages attain significantly above the national average.

The research also examined whether groups of EAL pupils differ in their proficiency in English. The results show that the characteristic that mattered most for EAL pupils’ degree of English proficiency was not their gender or FSM eligibility, but their age.

In Reception and key stage 1, 55 per cent of all EAL pupils were assessed as acquiring proficiency in English (New to English, Early acquisition or Developing competence), compared to about
23 per cent of pupils at the end of key stage 2, and 15 per cent at the end of key stage 4.

However, the report also highlights that there is a need for English language support at all ages. The key is to assess proficiency in English language and to develop tailored support when a pupil first

arrives in school, at whatever age, to enable them to access and achieve through the curriculum.

Another finding was that speaking more than one language, for those rated as Competent or Fluent in English, can have a significant positive association with achievement.

However, low proficiency in the language of instruction can be a barrier to learning. Therefore, pupils need to be supported adequately so that they can acquire the proficiency in English they need.

The report concludes by urging the DfE to review the evidence in the report and to reconsider their decision to withdraw the requirement for schools to assess a child’s proficiency in English for the purpose of transmitting it to the DfE via the School Census.

The decision to withdraw the EAL proficiency requirement is a retrograde step, and potentially a damaging one, as the research found that the greatest predictor of an EAL pupil’s achievement is their proficiency in English.

Another recommendation is for the DfE to provide schools with best practice guidance on EAL assessment to establish learners’ current proficiency in English language, alongside other background information, to inform individually tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning.

The report also requests that the amalgamated and anonymised data from the School Census is included in the NPD. This will provide researchers with a valuable tool to better understand the diversity of this cohort, the variability of educational achievement, and to plan targeted support.

  • Professor Steve Strand is from the Oxford University Department of Education & Diana Sutton is director of The Bell Foundation.

Further information

  • English as an Additional Language, Proficiency in English and Pupils’ Educational Achievement, Strand & Hessel, 2018: http://bit.ly/EALresearch18
  • Assessing English language proficiency: Why and how, SecEd, November 2018: http://bit.ly/2JHKmpv
  • Educational Outcomes of Children with EAL, Jo Hutchinson, Education Policy Institute, February 2018: http://bit.ly/2DznwA2


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