Blog: Inspection and the Multilingual Classroom – How Can Ofsted Support Best Practice?

In this blog, Diana Sutton, Director of the Foundation, takes a look at the key role Ofsted has to play in supporting effective EAL and ESOL provision.

Jump to:

In March, the new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Sir Martyn Oliver announced the launch of his much anticipated “Big Listen” – an opportunity for people across the sector, be they practitioners, third sector organisations, parents, or learners themselves, to give their views on what Ofsted could do differently.

A welcome focus of the consultation is on disadvantaged and vulnerable learners, many of whom speak English as a second or additional language. According to a Department for Education (DfE) analysis of 2018 National Pupil Database (NPD) data, 25% of pupils who use EAL are “disadvantaged”, which is a slightly higher proportion than pupils whose first language is English (at 24%).

Moreover, 41% of children who use English as an Additional Language (EAL) living in the most deprived areas will be in the early stages of developing English language competence, which is the group at risk of under-performing compared to their English-speaking peers. By contrast, in a less deprived area, only 27% of pupils who use EAL will be at the early stage of developing language competence (DfE, 2020). For some multilingual learners, research shows a clear attainment gap, with those who are new to English, arrive late into the school system, or are from certain language groups at particular risk of low attainment.

41% of children who use EAL living in the most deprived areas will be in the early stages of developing English language competence, which is the group at risk of under-performing compared to their English-speaking peers.

So, what more could Ofsted be doing to support schools and colleges achieve, in the words of Sir Martyn Oliver “high standards for all children, and positive outcomes for all children”? Here we take a look at some of the practical, but highly impactful, changes we are keen to see. But first, let me provide a bit of background...

Teacher with three students

Rising numbers of multilingual learners

The number of multilingual learners is high across both schools and further education. In schools, one in five learners now speak EAL, and many further education providers also have high numbers of English for Speakers of Other Language (ESOL) learners.

An increasing number of schools are also welcoming refugee communities for the first time – learners who have been forced to flee their home countries, may be experiencing trauma, and have now joined a new school system, with potentially limited or no proficiency in the language of instruction.

There is a clear link between proficiency in English and attainment for EAL pupils. Research shows that it explains up to six times as much variation in achievement as gender, free school meals and ethnicity combined, underlining the importance of ensuring effective and tailored provision is in place.

Explicit review of provision for learners whose first language is not English

Ofsted has a central role to play in ensuring that high standards of provision are maintained for all pupils, working with schools and colleges to promote inclusion and best practice.

It is key that inspectors explicitly review the provision for learners whose first language is not English – in schools and in colleges – including the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. This has always been important, yet even more so over recent years, where we have seen the creeping back of “withdrawal practices” for EAL learners in schools, and pupils with reduced access to mainstream lessons as a result. This is far from best practice and contrary to stated Government policy.

“EAL”, and the specific focus on inspecting how schools integrate EAL learners and ensure their access to the curriculum, was removed from the Education Inspection Framework in 2019. References to EAL remain in the initial teacher education inspection handbook and Teacher Standard 5 but have also been removed from the school inspections handbook.

By reintroducing an explicit focus on this group of learners, inspections can highlight areas of good practice, identify room for development, and support schools and colleges to ensure the rights, needs and outcomes of these learners are not overlooked.

Inspection of initial teacher education through an EAL lens

An explicit focus on learners who do not speak English as a first language is also key when inspecting the support given to teachers themselves.

More than 40% of teachers work in multilingual classrooms. However, with EAL absent from both the initial teacher training and the early career (ECF) frameworks, many tell us they feel ill-equipped to teach in multilingual classrooms.  In fact, only 37% of early career teachers recently surveyed reported that their training prepared them well to teach in multilingual classrooms (DfE, 2023).

Respondents to our recent survey told us:

[One of the key challenges is] [f]inding space in a busy ITE curriculum to educate trainee teachers on language for learning and how to embed this across programmes

[M]any teachers may lack the skills or strategies needed to effectively support English as an Additional Language (EAL) learners in their classrooms

Inspections of initial teacher education (ITE), the ECF, national professional qualification (NPQ) and further education and skills (FES) have real potential to enable improved support for teachers, by explicitly inspecting the extent to which they prepare staff to work in multilingual classrooms. Training for inspectors is also key. Many will be called upon to inspect multilingual classrooms, and it is vital that they have the tools and knowledge to do so effectively.


Gaining an accurate picture of the attainment and integration of learners, as well as the performance of education providers, includes having the available data.

Until 2019, inspectors had access to data on attainment and progress by pupil group collected by the DfE through Analyse School Performance (ASP) and produced specifically for Ofsted inspections and Inspection Data Summary Reports. It is reported that these have since been discontinued, meaning that no progress or attainment data on pupil groups is visible to inspectors.

There are also gaps in further education data, due to it only being recorded for the number of ESOL learners on 19+ ESOL Skills for Life provision. This means that we lack official data on the progress, retention, and achievement of the vast majority of second language learners, with lead inspectors instead relying on the information providers make available. This lack of data could helpfully and practically be addressed through the introduction of an additional field marker in the individualised learning record (ILR), the data collected about learners from FES training providers, which identifies learners with other language backgrounds.

Better data is key to better inspection. Inspectors must be given the information they need to identify trends in progress and outcomes, to plan inspection activity, and report meaningfully on the impact for learners.

Find out more

Ofsted has a central role to play in driving the highest standards for all pupils, working alongside schools and colleges to promote best practice. For EAL and ESOL learners, key to this is training, data, and inclusion in key policies and frameworks.

The “Big Listen” is a welcome opportunity to explore what could be done differently and to implement meaningful changes, supporting improved outcomes for all learners.

Related posts

    Blog: EAL Children and the Early Years Sector – The Best Start?

    In this blog, Professor Claudine Bowyer-Crane and Dr Silke Fricke look at the achievement gap for EAL pupils in early years, exploring the reality behind the misleading data and what this means for policy.

    Blog: Teaching Multilingual Pupils – Reflections on the Myths

    This latest blog from Diana Sutton, Director of The Bell Foundation follows her recent participation in the EEF’s ‘Evidence into Action’ podcast and highlights some of the practical strategies and free resources available to support EAL learners.