Aggregated Headline GCSE Results Mask the Truth about EAL pupil performance

Aggregated figures for learners who use English as an Additional Language (EAL) mask the real picture about the performance of EAL learners and the data hides as much as it tells us about students who speak another language at home. 

Today the Department for Education (DfE) has published GCSE results by pupil characteristics.  However, the aggregated figures for learners who use English as an Additional Language (EAL) mask the real picture about the performance of EAL learners and the data hides as much as it tells us about students who speak another language at home.  This is because the EAL indicator is a binary measure that defines the learner as ‘any pupil that speaks a language in addition to English at home’.

The term EAL therefore covers a vastly different group of students, from advanced bilingual learners to those new to English and whilst advanced bilinguals typically do outperform, once proficiency in English is achieved, certain first language pupils (for example Pashto and Turkish speakers), those arriving late into the English school system, those who have had poor prior education¹, as well as pupils who are new to English or below competency² are all left behind.

Recently published research from the University of Oxford², examined the relationship between English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement.  It found that it is proficiency in English that explains up to 22% of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement.  This figure is much higher than the typical 3% to 4% variation that can be statistically explained using other characteristics, for example, gender, free school meal (FSM) status and ethnicity.

The report found that there is a huge difference in Key Stage 4 achievement depending on the proficiency in English of the learners which, for Attainment 8, ranges from 15.0 for those New to English, through to 54.5 for those who are Fluent in English.  This is the difference between passing eight subjects at a mix of grade 1 or grade 2, and passing all eight subjects at grade 5 or above. As an example, this would be the difference between a pupil leaving education at age 16, or being able to apply to a school or college (which usually require a minimum of four or five grades between a 4 and 5) to study for A-levels.  The Attainment 8 figures compare to a score of 46.6 for monolingual English speakers – which means that they are only outperformed by those who are Fluent in English.

However, as one of the research² authors, Professor Steve Strand, University of Oxford explains, “The ability to establish the link between English language proficiency and attainment will no longer be possible due to the Department for Education’s withdrawal of the requirement for schools to report on English language proficiency in the School Census³.  This a retrograde step, and potentially a damaging one, as the scale is the best predictor of EAL learners’ educational attainment, and therefore I strongly urge the Department for Education to reconsider this decision.”

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation said “Research shows how bilingualism has positive associations with achievement.  But it is vital to look behind the headline data at what the research tells us.  Crucially it shows that limited proficiency in English is a barrier to learning. Therefore, the key is to reliably assess proficiency in English language and to ensure that support is available to EAL learners when they arrive in school, at whatever age, to enable them to access and achieve through the curriculum and that they are not left behind.”

Research from the Education Policy Institute (EPI)¹ recommended that the government should also consider the ‘Lessons that can be drawn from other English-speaking jurisdictions – where there are effective policies for establishing specialist EAL roles, programmes for staff development and graduate level specialist qualifications.’

The EPI research identified that average attainment figures obscure significant disparities in performance – and that the data is also distorted by missing or misleading prior attainment records.  The research also highlighted that EAL learners are a hugely diverse group whose attainment is affected by language skills (both first language and English language proficiency), prior educational experiences, and time of arrival into the English school system. Children with EAL have widely varying levels of English proficiency and will include a refugee who has fled war and persecution, has had little education in their country of origin and speaks no English and a fluent multilingual English-speaker, who speaks for example both Mandarin and English at home. The EPI research also found that Progress 8 is not an accurate measure of academic achievement for this cohort. The report states that ‘Academic assessments undertaken before proficiency is reached will under-estimate academic attainment to an unmeasured degree, because they are mediated by the child’s English proficiency at the time of the test. There is therefore a ‘misleading measurements’ problem.’

The evidence is clear on the need to assess English language proficiency and therefore The Bell Foundation urges schools to continue with a robust approach to the assessment of their learners who use English as an Additional Language. This in turn will provide schools with a more detailed understanding of individual learning needs and better equip them to target resources and to bring about changes in teaching and learning that will make a real difference to the outcomes of all EAL learners.

The research reports ¹ and ² below provide data on attainment of EAL learners by proficiency level – from A ‘New to English’ through to E ‘Fluent’

¹ ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’, February 2018, Hutchinson J, is available on The Bell Foundation website
² ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data’, October 2018, Strand S & Hessel A, is available on The Bell Foundation website
³ ‘School census 2018 to 2019, Business and technical specification, version 1.1’, Department for Education, June 2018

About The Bell Foundation
The Bell Foundation aims to overcome exclusion through language education by working with partners on innovation, research, training and practical interventions.  Through generating and applying evidence, we aim to change practice, policy and systems for children, adults and communities with English as an Additional Language in the UK.

Media enquiries should be directed to Julia Shervington, Communications Manager, or call 01223 275503 / 07713 401468