English as an Additional Language: Proficiency in English, educational achievement and rate of progression in English language learning

The University of Oxford, with The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, have published a report which investigates the length of time it takes for pupils who are New to English when they arrive in Reception to achieve academic Proficiency in English (PIE).  The research demonstrates that the current three-year allocation for supporting learners using EAL within the National Funding Formula (NFF) is insufficient for pupils who are New to English when they start school.

The report, written by Professor Steve Strand and Dr Ariel Lindorff, Department of Education, University of Oxford, analysed Proficiency in English data from the Welsh Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC).  The Welsh Government has been recording the Proficiency in English of pupils annually since 2009, which provided data for this cross-sectional and longitudinal study.  In total 3,528,064 anonymised pupil records across a nine-year period (from Reception to Year 11) were analysed.  As the data is recorded using the same five-point PIE scale as the one used in England in 2017-2018 the research team found that the group was comparable to that in the English National Pupil Database and therefore the findings are as relevant in England as they are in Wales.

The report builds on, and extends, previous research (Strand, Malmberg and Hall (2015) and Strand and Hessel (2018)) which showed that Proficiency in English is central to understanding achievement and levels of support needed.  This study sets out to answer two questions which are of central importance for teachers, curriculum developers and policy-makers:

  1. How long does it take for pupils who are New to English to acquire Proficiency in English?
  2. How long do pupils need special language support?

Key findings include:

  • Proficiency in English is the major factor influencing the educational achievement and the degree of support a pupil using EAL will require.  Pupils (starting in Reception) who progressed more quickly to Early Acquisition and Developing Competence on average had higher Key Stage 2 English attainment.  In fact, pupils who made each transition tended to have higher KS2 English attainment than those who did not make the same transition.
  • Even six years after starting Reception as New to English (entry level Proficiency in 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.
  • For the 31% who do progress from New to English to Competent whilst at primary school, it takes, on average, 4.6 years to make the transition.
  • 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.
  • The report reinforces findings from earlier research which found that there were few strong relationships between pupil characteristics and time to progress. The latest research, however, identified two notable exceptions.  Firstly, Pakistani pupils took significantly longer to progress to Early Acquisition and Developing Competence (though not to Competent or Fluent) than any other ethnic group.  Secondly, pupils with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and School Action (used when a pupil is not making the expected progress and action needs to be taken) progressed more slowly from New to English to Early Acquisition.

Key Recommendations for schools:

  • Continue assessing and recording the Proficiency in English of all learners using EAL and provide 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.

Key Recommendations for the Government:

  • As Proficiency in English is the major factor influencing the educational achievement and the degree of support a pupil using EAL will require the Department for Education (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.  This requirement should remain in place in order to allow longitudinal studies for learners using EAL in English schools similar to the research carried out on Welsh pupil data.
  • An earlier report also recommended that the DfE provides guidance on, and tools for, undertaking robust and consistent assessment to establish the level of English language proficiency.
  • The evidence in this report demonstrates why the DfE should consider the current level of support provided for learners using EAL after they start school.

The executive summary of the report is available in Welsh and the full report in English.