EEF BLOG: Tackling under-achievement among at risk EAL pupils - a case study in partnership

Today the EEF launches a new funding round inviting applications for evidence-based ideas which aim to boost attainment for pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL). How it came about, writes development director Stephen Tall, is an interesting case study of how we approach issues of educational inequality and try and tackle them in partnership with others.

It began two years ago this month, at the first meeting of the School Funders’ Network (a group of grant-makers committed to addressing educational disadvantage which the EEF convenes with the Association of Charitable Foundations), with a chance conversation between our chief executive, Kevan Collins, and Will Somerville, the director of UK programmes for Unbound Philanthropy.

Both Kevan and Will shared a concern that the fantastic educational achievements of many EAL pupils, especially in London, was at risk of blurring a more complex picture. After all, the EAL label applies to over a million pupils, and includes both the bilingually fluent child of a French banker alongside the Somali refugee who may not speak English at all.

We wanted to get behind the averages, to go deeper and more granular, to find out which groups of EAL pupils are at greatest risk of not doing well at school. And, having identified those groups, we then wanted to find out which teaching and learning approaches and interventions had some good evidence behind them which schools could implement to help tackle the under-achievement of those pupils.

Diana Sutton, director of the Bell Foundation, a grant-maker which has a particular interest in improving outcomes for EAL children, also joined the conversation. Together we commissioned an academic review in 2014 from a couple of distinguished academics at the University of Oxford, Professors Steve Strand and Victoria Murphy.

Their ground-breaking reports, published in January, highlighted the significant variations in outcomesbetween groups of EAL pupils. But they highlighted something else, too -- a serious lack of robust research evidence of tried-and-tested approaches and interventions to improve EAL pupils’ English language and literacy.

This was a disappointing finding. After all, the EEF’s role is to support schools in raising attainment by making accessible what we know about what’s most likely to work based on studies gathered from educational research around the world. It is harder to do that when there are only a small number of approaches and interventions with some evidence of promise, none of which have been trialled in the UK.

It threw down the gauntlet to all three funders – if there’s not enough high-quality evidence to guide schools to make effective choices then we need to help generate such evidence. That is exactly what the EEF, Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy have committed to doing, with our respective Trustees jointly committing some £2 million to this work.

This pooled pot will fund trials to evaluate teaching and learning approaches, as well as intervention programmes, solely focused on raising the attainment of EAL pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and in particular those groups identified by the Strand / Murphy reports as most at-risk of under-achieving at school.

Applicants have until October to submit their ideas to us. We will then start the process of awarding grants to the most promising and commissioning independent evaluations so that we can begin to build a reliable evidence-base to which schools can turn when attending to the English language proficiency of their EAL pupils.

What began as a chance conversation two years ago will, we hope, become a crucial milestone in improving learning outcomes for those groups of EAL pupils at risk of under-achieving at school.