Research provides evidence on why the Department for Education should reintroduce the Proficiency in English Scale

The University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, have published a report ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data'.

The University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, have today published a report ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data'.

The report highlights that learners with English as an Additional Language (EAL) are a heterogeneous group, and that the term encompasses a vast range of language skills, from pupils who have had little exposure to English, through to those brought up in a multilingual home.  The report finds that it is proficiency in English that is central to understanding achievement and levels of need among pupils with EAL.  As the research demonstrates, proficiency in English 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.

As seen in the research findings, although English language support is most needed in the early years and Key Stage 1, there is also a need for support at later ages for some pupils.  The key is to assess proficiency in English language and to develop tailored support when a pupil first arrives in school, at whatever age, to enable them to access and achieve through the curriculum.

The research analysed the January 2017 School Census data of more than 140,000 pupils attending 1,569 schools in six Local Authorities.  Although this was the first year that the School Census included the requirement for schools to assess the proficiency in English of their EAL learners¹, the information was not made available in the National Pupil Database (NPD).  As Professor Steve Strand, one of the report authors and Professor of Education at the Oxford University Department of Education, explains, “The Department for Education has since announced that it no longer requires schools to assess a child’s proficiency in English for the purpose of transmitting it to the department via the School Census. This is 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 and to include the data in the National Pupil Database so that further research can be conducted.”

Another highlight in the report is the sometimes positive association between bilingualism and achievement.  Being bilingual is not a barrier to learning, 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.

The report urges schools to continue to assess the proficiency in English of their EAL pupils, and to use the data to identify need and target support.  It also makes three recommendations to the Department for Education (DfE).  Firstly, to reconsider the decision to withdraw the Proficiency in English Scale, which is a valuable tool to understand pupils’ EAL language proficiency and to predict attainment.  Secondly, to make that data available in the National Pupil Database so that it can provide researchers with the vital data they need to truly understand this heterogeneous group.  Finally, the report recommends that the DfE provides guidance on best practice in EAL assessment to schools to enable them to understand the variability in EAL pupils’ educational achievement and to plan targeted support.

Diana Sutton, Director, The Bell Foundation, commented “This report provides more evidence on the diversity of this group of learners and therefore the need for valid and reliable assessment.  Assessment which helps teachers establish the EAL learner’s current proficiency in English language, alongside other background information, to inform individually tailored targets and support strategies for teaching and learning, ultimately allowing learners to develop their language skills and fully access the curriculum.”

“The Foundation encourages the Department for Education to use the evidence contained in this report to provide more comprehensive guidance for schools to undertake EAL assessment.”

The full report is available to read below:  ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data'.


¹ The Department for Education’s five-point Proficiency in English Scale ranged from ‘A’ New to English, through ‘B’ Early acquisition, ‘C’ Developing competence, ‘D’ Competent, to ‘E’ Fluent.

About The Bell Foundation

The Bell Foundation is a charity which 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 in the UK disadvantaged through language.

The EAL Programme aims to improve the educational outcomes of children with English as an Additional Language in the UK to benefit the individual child and society as a whole. The Foundation works in partnership with a range of organisations across the education system, to provide training and resources in order to build capacity, develop and evaluate models of good practice, and provide thought leadership.

Media enquiries regarding this announcement should be directed to Julia Shervington, Communications Manager,  or 01223 275501.

About the Department of Education, University of Oxford

The Department of Education at the University of Oxford is renowned for its research excellence. It was ranked first in the UK in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) and is the highest ranked UK education faculty in the 2018 Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings subject league. The department has many research collaborations within the social sciences division and of course the University more widely, both of which were ranked first globally in 2018. Our research is outward-facing, with projects that are transformative not just for the research field, but for governments, charities, industry and all levels of the educational sector. Our vision for digital futures in education runs across the expertise in the department, involving research on young people and families, through schools, further education, higher education and into the labour market.

About Unbound Philanthropy

Unbound Philanthropy is an independent private grant-making foundation that works to ensure that migrants and refugees are treated with respect and engage with their new communities. We support pragmatic, innovative, and responsive approaches to immigration and immigrant integration in the United States and United Kingdom.