Blog: New research on EAL learners shows the importance of looking behind headline attainment data

This post looks at research on the educational attainment of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) undertaken by Professor Steve Strand and Dr Ariel Lindorff, University of Oxford.

The Bell Foundation, together with Unbound Philanthropy and the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, has published research on the educational attainment of children with English as an Additional Language (EAL) undertaken by Professor Steve Strand and Dr Ariel Lindorff.

Hot on the heels of the report ‘English as an Additional Language: Proficiency in English, educational achievement and rate of progression in English language learning’ in our series of research is the  publication, by the Department for Education (DfE), of the analysis of two years’ worth of data from the School Census collected between Autumn 2016 and Spring 2018, when the DfE briefly introduced a requirement for schools in England to report on proficiency in English for EAL pupils.  The DfE’s analysis ‘English proficiency of pupils with English as an additional language’ published on 27 February 2020, shows the clear link between attainment and proficiency in English and the findings are broadly consistent with the findings of the Foundation’s research programme, as detailed below.  A key finding in the Department’s analysis of the data is, “The largest differences are seen by age and length of time in an English school.....Similarly, pupils who have been in an English school for 5 or more years are more likely to be assessed as competent or fluent in English (80%) than pupils who have been in an English school for 1 to 4 years (40%)”.   The DfE’s publication recognises the importance of proficiency in English stating that, “Attainment increases with greater proficiency at all key stages”.  This provides a more accurate picture than, “As in 2018, pupils with English as an additional language performed better across headline measures” from the DfE’s recent report on aggregated attainment data for all learners.

How little the last headline finding really tells us about this group of learners.  Our latest research underlines the continued importance of looking behind aggregated attainment data to understand what is really going on.  What are the drivers of educational attainment and the reasons for educational under attainment of EAL learners?  And why is this important for both policy makers and practitioners?

Firstly, there are currently 1.56 million EAL learners, just under one-in-five (19.6%) of all pupils aged 5-16 in England and this number has more than doubled since the late 1990s.  So, whilst one-quarter of schools have less than 1% of pupils recorded as EAL, in around 1 in 11 schools EAL pupils constitute more than 50% of the school population, which means that many teachers will be teaching in a multilingual classroom.

Secondly, learners using EAL are a very diverse group with country of birth, time of arrival in the school system, first language spoken, previous education and background all contributing to that diversity and their likelihood to succeed.  It is important to look at each learner and not make assumptions based on aggregated data about achievement, either for an individual pupil or for national policy.

This latest research and previous reports in our series show that it is the learner’s proficiency in English that is the key to understanding educational attainment and the type and length of support needed.  Whilst this may seem obvious, what is surprising is that this is not usually routinely and robustly assessed in schools.  The School Census only records a pupil as ‘First language known or believed to be English’ or ‘First language known or believed to be other than English’.  This gives no indication of a student’s proficiency in English.  EAL students in a school may include both second or third generation ethnic minority students who speak English fluently but have a second or more languages as part of their cultural heritage, alongside new arrivals to the English school system who may have fled war or persecution, may have no experience of formal education and have no knowledge of English.

This new research looks retrospectively at nine years’ worth of data collected in Wales where proficiency in English is assessed on a five-point scale from New to English through to Competent or Fluent¹.  The findings are insightful:-

  • Only 31% of pupils who start in Reception class with the lowest level of English language proficiency (classed as New to English²) progress to Competent or Fluent in English (the highest levels of proficiency) by the time they leave primary school.
  • Even six years after starting Reception as New to English, two-thirds of pupils still have not transitioned to Competent or Fluent which means that they have not gained the academic linguistic proficiency to fully access the curriculum and achieve their potential.  Many EAL pupils, therefore, need more than six years of support to achieve proficiency in English which is the point at which the learner is able to fully access the curriculum and therefore to fulfil their academic potential.
  • For the 31% who start as New to English whilst at primary school, it takes, on average, 4.6 years to progress to Competent.
  • EAL pupils who enter school in later year groups may be more likely to have lower levels of proficiency in English and to have lower levels of attainment in end of Key Stage tests but on average they should be expected to make the same progress in learning English, and at the same rate, as pupils joining in Reception.
  • Learners who start with the lowest levels of proficiency may struggle to access the curriculum and become increasingly at a disadvantage if they progress slowly in developing their English language skills. These pupils typically underperform in comparison to their English as a First Language peers and therefore require more support to meet their individual needs.
  • It is not until pupils are Competent or Fluent (the highest levels of proficiency) in the English language that they are more likely to achieve a higher attainment than their monolingual peers in GCSEs.

Other reports in the research series include the following findings:-

  • Proficiency in English is the major factor influencing the educational achievement of pupils with EAL. It can explain 22% of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement, compared to the typical 3-4% that can be statistically explained using gender, Free School Meal status and ethnicity.
  • Attainment is affected by first language. There are marked differences between, for example, Tamil and Chinese speakers who perform better than Pashto and Turkish speakers irrespective of when they arrive in the system.
  • Attainment is also affected by arrival time in the school system. There is a severe attainment penalty for pupils arriving late into the English school system. For example, at GCSE level, pupils with EAL scored an average grade of a C³ if they arrived between Reception and Year 7. This decreased to a grade of around a D³ if they arrived in Year 8, 9 or 10 – falling further to below an E³ if they arrived in Year 11.
  • The percentage of EAL students in the school has minimal association with overall student attainment or progress when controls for student background were included. If anything, First Language English (FLE) students had marginally higher attainment and made marginally more progress in high percentage EAL schools than in low percentage EAL schools, net of all other factors.  This analysis gives no evidence that FLE students suffer from attending a school with a high percentage of EAL students.

What are the implications of this research for policy and for schools?

Firstly, it is important to recognise that aggregated data tells us very little about EAL learners.  The DfE acknowledged this both in an advisory note to schools last summer, and through the report ‘English proficiency of pupils with English as an additional language’ published on 27 February 2020, but there is much further to go to ensure that the available evidence informs policy and the prevailing narrative.

Between Autumn 2016 and Spring 2018, the DfE briefly introduced the Proficiency in English Scales in England². These have subsequently been withdrawn.

The evidence from research demonstrates the clear link between proficiency in English and a pupil’s attainment and why schools need to assess and record the proficiency in English of all learners using EAL as well as assessing a learner’s cognitive skills and previous educational experience.  This will enable schools to identify need and provide targeted support strategies and learning objectives tailored to the individual pupil.  As a result, the learner will progress to higher levels of proficiency, gain academic linguistic proficiency enabling them to fully access the curriculum and, as a result, fulfil their academic potential.  Teachers can download free assessment tools and resources here.

Since proficiency in English has such a significant relationship with pupil attainment, the DfE should re-introduce the requirement for schools to assess the proficiency in English of their learners and to record that in the School Census.

The DfE could also usefully issue guidance to schools on best practice in undertaking robust and consistent EAL assessment to establish the level of English language proficiency which will enable schools to understand the variability in EAL pupils’ educational achievement and to plan targeted support.

It is important to recognise that once academic proficiency in English is achieved, bilingualism is an asset: the evidence shows that there are positive associations between bilingualism and achievement.  What can be a barrier to achievement is low proficiency in the language of instruction at school.  Pupils need to be supported so that they can acquire the proficiency that they need to succeed.

Given that the time of arrival of an EAL learner in the school system significantly affects attainment, Government could consider introducing a ‘late arrival premium’ in the National Funding Formula for schools as the current funding provision for pupils arriving late into the English school system is inadequate. This funding would provide intensive support, and, in particular, to help address the large attainment differences between those arriving in Year 7 and those arriving later in Year 10 or 11.

As funding support is less than in other English-speaking jurisdictions such as New Zealand, New South Wales, Alberta and some US states, where five years of support is common, and some areas offer up to seven years for vulnerable groups such as refugees there should be consideration of the current level of support provided for learners using EAL after they start school.

Government should also develop new policies to generate and maintain EAL expertise in schools. Lessons 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.

You may also be interested in:
• EAL webinar recordings
• EAL research reports
• Other EAL blogs in the series
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Author - Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation.  Diana will be speaking at the Inside Government event ‘EAL Teaching and Learning: Raising Standards to Improve Outcomes’ forum on Wednesday 11 March 2020.

¹ The research team combined the two highest levels of proficiency, Competent and Fluent, due to inconsistencies in the way in which they were assessed and/or recorded over time.  The team are not suggesting that these categories should be combined in practice as the competencies associated with them differ.
² The Department for Education’s five-point Proficiency in English Scale (now withdrawn) ranged from ‘A’ New to English, through ‘B’ Early Acquisition, ‘C’ Developing Competence, ‘D’ Competent, to ‘E’ Fluent
³ The 2018 report ‘Educational Outcomes of Children with English as an Additional Language’ used data from 2016, which is why the pre-reform points system is used – with alphabetical GCSE grades represented.  These have subsequently been replaced with 1-9 grades.


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