EEF Blog: What do we know about the attainment of EAL pupils - and what do we need to find out?

Stephen Tall looks at new research into the attainment of pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) to see what lessons we can learn.

Today we have published two reports analysing the evidence on the achievement of pupils with English as an Additional Language (EAL) in England.

That we commissioned them at all might surprise some. After all, much of the current focus of education policy is on how we can best tackle the under-achievement of white working-class children, the subject of a major inquiryby the House of Commons’ education select committee last summer. Indeed, one recent study argued that the ‘London Effect’ – the term given to the transformation of the capital’s schools over the past decade – has been largely driven by its diverse ethnic population.

And today’s report by Professor Steve Strand contains positive news – most notably that, on average, EAL pupils more or less catch up with their peers by age 16, with 58.3% of EAL pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths compared to 60.9% of all other pupils. It also finds no evidence that pupils whose first language is English suffer from attending a school with a high proportion of EAL pupils.

So that’s all alright, then: ‘EAL pupils do just fine,’ should be the headline conclusion? It is, of course, a bit more complicated than that.

That 58.3% stat for EAL pupils is an overall figure, an average. And, like any average, it can conceal as much as it reveals – especially as the classification of EAL can include the bilingually fluent child of a French banker alongside the Somali refugee who may not speak English at all.

It was to delve deeper, to understand the variation within this average so that we can pin-point more accurately which groups of EAL pupils need most support at school, that we commissioned this work in partnership with Unbound Philanthropy and Bell Foundation. This point is illustrated by two of the findings:

  • In total, there are over a million children classified as EAL, representing almost 1-in-6 pupils in schools in England. However, where those pupils are located is very unevenly distributed. In more than one-fifth of schools there are less than 1% EAL pupils. But in 1-in-12 schools, EAL pupils represent over half the school population. As you might expect, a majority of these 1,681 schools are in London – but 762 (45%) are beyond the capital, principally in the West Midlands, North West, and Yorkshire and the Humber.
  • Within the group of EAL pupils categorised as ‘White (Other)’, for instance, there’s a wide range of GCSE outcomes for pupils at age 16, even after adjusting for home background: Russian and Spanish speakers do well, but Romanian, Lithuanian, and Slovak speakers score substantially below their peers. Similarly, Portuguese, Lingala and Somali speakers do much less well than other ‘Black African’ speakers.

We draw three lessons from Professor Stand’s analysis.

  1. First, funding for EAL pupils – £243 million is currently allocated by local authorities – has been and remains an important contributor to their academic progress, which is itself something we should celebrate. As Mark Keary, principal of Bethnal Green Academy in East London (where more then 70% of pupils are EAL), points out in the TES, “I think there’s something about having more than one language that seems to accelerate their cognitive progress – it really seems to help. This then has an effect on the other students whose first language is English.”
  2. Secondly, this funding needs to be targeted at those groups of pupils identified by the report as most at risk of under-attainment. For instance, though those EAL pupils who start school at age 5 generally catch up by age 16, those who arrive at school later on are more likely to need additional support. The key point for schools is to assess pupils’ English language proficiency in order to address their learning needs.
  3. Third, we think that funding and accountability for its use go hand in hand. Just as there is an expectation that the Pupil Premium money schools receive will be used in ways that will reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and all other pupils, so we should expect EAL funding to be targeted at reducing inequality in educational outcomes for those at-risk of under-achieving.

There is also an action point here for the EEF.

The second report we published today, by Professor Victoria Murphy, is a systematic review of international research into interventions designed to improve EAL children’s English language and literacy. We hoped it would identify promising ideas that had already been trialled and found to be effective. Its main finding, however, is that there is a serious lack of robust research evidence. No examples of randomised controlled trials (RCTs), or studies where the effectiveness of the intervention was evaluated by an independent review team, could be identified.

That is something we intend to put right, building on the handful of approaches and interventions, with some, limited evidence of success, highlighted by Professor Murphy. Watch this space…