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Department of Education

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Article co-authored by Steve Strand (Professor of Education) on why the recording of proficiency in English in the School Census should be reintroduced.

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Proficiency in English can directly influence the academic achievement of a student with English as an Additional Language, according to new research conducted by the department academic, Steve Strand.

Published on 11 October, the report: ‘English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data’ was conducted by the department in partnership with the Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, and focused on better understanding the experiences of students in the UK with English as an Additional Language (EAL), and to what degree ability (proficiency) shaped them.

The findings support the growing argument that the decision taken by the Department for Education (DfE) in June of this year, to scrap compulsory EAL proficiency data collection in schools, was a mistake. In recent months EAL professionals have put increasing pressure on government Ministers to reinstate the short-lived rule and today’s report has only strengthened their case.

The report assessed January 2017 School Census data from more than 140,000 pupils from 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 learners, the information was not made available in the National Pupil Database (NPD).

Professor Steve Strand, one of the report authors and Professor of Education at the department said: ‘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.’

The term ‘English as an Additional Language’ encompasses pupils with a wide range of language skills, from new arrivals to the country with little or no exposure to English, to those brought up in multilingual homes, who are also fully fluent in English.

The report finds that although English language support is most needed in early years’ education and at Key Stage 1, there is also a need for support at later ages for some pupils. Assessing a student’s proficiency in English language is key to providing the right level of support to students of all ages, and developing a tailored programme to guide them from their first day at school, throughout the rest of the curriculum.

The report finds that your proficiency in English is central to understanding achievement and levels of need among pupils with EAL. In fact, 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.

The findings also suggest that being bilingual is an asset to learning, and not the barrier that some research has claimed. However, low proficiency in the language of instruction used at a school can be a significant barrier. The report’s authors caution that providing support for students so that they can reach the proficiency level needed to succeed, is vital to providing effective education to EAL pupils.

The report’s authors are urging schools to continue to assess the proficiency in English of their EAL pupils, and to use this data to identify individual needs, in order to provide targeted support.

The findings include a number of suggested recommendations for the Department for Education (DfE). These include, reconsidering 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 authors recommend 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 allows teachers to 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 the report to provide more comprehensive guidance for schools to undertake EAL assessment. Through undertaking robust assessment schools can develop a better understanding of their learners, their level of proficiency and their needs, which will inform teaching and learning.’

TES article citing research led by Steve Strand.

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