By Kate Hollinshead firstname.lastname@example.org
In the last couple of weeks, there have been a number of damning articles written about children who have English as an Additional Language:
‘Pressure on classrooms mounts as we reveal school where 42 different languages are spoken. At Claremont Primary, 58 per cent of kids don’t have English as their mother tongue’ The Sun, 2nd July 2016
‘Rise in ethnic minority pupils in primary schools, figures show’ The Telegraph, 29th June 2016
Reading through these articles, it is clear to see that they are packed full of the age-old, ever-persistent myths about children who have English as an additional language. In this post-referendum climate, where a spotlight has yet again been thrown on immigration policy in the UK and anti-immigrant sentiment has been legitimised for many, it is once again opportune to confront and deconstruct these myths, providing an important counter-narrative to the mainstream media’s take on children, language and language acquisition.
Let’s start with the initial claim that ‘in primary schools, 20.1 per cent of pupils are exposed to a language known or believed to be other than English in their home, an increase of 0.7 percentage points since January 2015.’ While the latest school census statistics prove this to be accurate, it is hardly headline news – the same level of increase occurred between January 2014 and 2015 and the number of pupils with English as an Additional Language has been steadily increasing since 2006. In addition, this statistic is thrown into the article by the Telegraph that leads with the number of minority ethnic pupils in primary schools, painting a picture that schools are becoming increasing ‘foreign’ to White British pupils. The school census is very clear in highlighting that their statistics about EAL pupils are ‘not a good proxy for recent immigration’ and that the increase is related to an increase in the number of pupils, driven by an increase in birth rate for non-UK born women, compared to that of UK-born women, and not a result of direct current immigration the Telegraph and the Sun would have us believe. Indeed, the Sun mentions a ‘conveyor belt of new arrivals’ and ‘dozens of extra foreign pupils’ when referring to EAL pupils, contrary to the facts in the school census.
In addition, these statistics on EAL children are not a measure of English language proficiency. Indeed, to be classified as having EAL, a pupil must be ‘exposed to a language at home that is believed to be other than English.’ This means that a pupil may be born in Britain and be fluent in English, but classed as having English as an Additional Language because their mother sometimes speaks Italian at home. Being defined as EAL does not always mean that you will be new to English or in the early stages of language acquisition, but also includes those children who are developing competence, competent or fluent in English.
This brings us to The Sun’s claim that 58% of children at Claremont Primary do not have English as their mother tongue and that ‘amid all the different accents and dialects echoing across the playground there is one word you will rarely hear – British.’ I find this very difficult to believe, considering the broad and varied language acquisition stages of children with EAL, the fact that children will not just be communicating with those who have the same additional language as themselves, but with others with wide and varied family backgrounds, and the fact that many of the children will have been born to parents who have been living in the UK, not who have recently migrated to the UK.
However, let’s assume for one moment that this is an accurate piece of journalism… is it really that bad that we can hear different languages in a playground? Certainly not for the children with EAL, as statistics prove that using your native language dramatically increases the pace at which children learn English. Of course lessons are taught in English, but children speaking to each other in a common language whilst in lessons, on the playground, in the lunch hall, will improve language acquisition skills. Have you ever tried to learn a language without using your mother tongue? Acquiring language is a constant process of internally or externally translating words and sentences between languages to improve understanding and add to your vocabulary. It would be unhelpful, and frankly unwelcoming, for schools to ban children from speaking their home language, especially for those new to English or in the early stages of learning English. Not only does it mean schooling much harder for those children, but it also sends out a message that their language, their identity, their culture is not important in school, and must be ‘shaken off’ in order to fit into the norm. Schools should be places where the individual is cherished and accepted, not where essential, intrinsic parts of that individual are left at the door.
So, what about the age-old worry that White British children’s education is suffering amongst all of this? Professor Smithers suggests that ‘the attention of teachers has to go on enabling them to become fluent in English. White British children are tending to miss out and their underperformance is of increasing concern.’
Let’s look the relationship between teachers and EAL pupils. Improving the language skills of EAL pupils is not just a job teachers are tasked with. Instead, the most successful schools have a whole school approach to improving language skills. Many of the techniques used at Claremont Primary School are good practice, including an eight-strong inclusion team, much larger than many schools I have worked in, translators at parents evenings, newsletters written in different languages and buddying systems, so that pupils are not left alone during breaks and lunch. Teaching assistants often provide one-to-one support for EAL pupils during lessons too. So whilst teachers must ensure that their teaching resources are ‘EAL friendly’, for example using pictures as well as words, including vocabulary lists and planning using The Cummins Framework, these do not just advantage EAL pupils but are beneficial teaching resources for all pupils, meaning that teachers time spent improving EAL pupils’ language acquisition does not mean that White British children ‘are tending to miss out.’ It is a credit to our teachers that all of this good work is going on, despite cuts to EAL funding in recent years. Funding is no longer ring-fenced and is now only provided for three years after a child is registered as having EAL, even though evidence suggests it can take up to seven years for a pupil to be become fluent in English.
Now let’s look at EAL pupils and achievement. Where pupils have English as an Additional Language, this is associated with lower achievement on starting school, however, this effect reduces markedly with age and is largely eliminated by age 16. In 2014, it was announced that pupils with EAL had for the first time outperformed native English speakers, however this was in part put down to an increase in the number of pupils taking GCSEs in foreign languages, where EAL pupils tend to perform better. It is certainly worrying that some White British boys and girls from lower socio-economic statuses are underperforming, as it is when any group is underperforming. However, to place the blame at the foot of EAL pupils for this underperformance is misleading and wrong, there are many interconnected reasons as to why White British pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds are underperforming on average. Some parents themselves have often had poor experiences of education; previous generations have had guaranteed jobs in steel, coal or potteries, and while these industries had collapsed, they haven’t been replaced by a new focus on education; and some pupils’ lack of ambition are all cited amongst the reasons. Schools can and do make a big impact – twice the proportion of children from lower socio-economic statuses attending an outstanding school will leave with five good GCSEs when compared with the lowest rated schools. However, overall levels of achievement are rising across the country and, importantly, the performance of poorer White pupils in London’s schools, which are the most diverse in the country, is far better than in less diverse schools in northern England.
The Sun continues its attempted attack on Claremont Primary by picking up on schools’ new requirement to promote Fundamental British Values. The Sun claims that the school has been asked not to use the term ‘British’ because it is ‘elitist’ and ‘for fear it may offend the many migrants who send their children to the school.’ Whilst I highly doubt that the term ‘British’ has been banned from mention in the school altogether, the headteacher’s reframing of Fundamental British Values as human values comes from a nuanced and highly culturally aware standpoint. ‘Being British is more than London cabs and fish and chips. We are not the little Island anymore but part of a global community – and want our school to be the same,’ remarks the Headteacher. This argument taps into much criticism of the new requirement to promote Fundamental British Values, which has been misinterpreted in many schools and has led to the perpetuation of stereotypical ideas of ‘Britishness,’ with schools teaching pupils that being British means riding in London cabs, eating fish and chips, knowing all about the Queen and Winston Churchill, and even queuing! Relabeling Fundamental British Values as human values or universal values steers people away from these narrow, old-fashioned stereotypes into more meaningful and inclusive work around values and citizenship education for all pupils.
Towards the end of The Sun’s article, the author highlights two exchanges he observed which demonstrated to him that tension exists between EAL pupils and native English speakers:
‘A young Pakistani boy sits silently drawing pictures. I try to speak to him but his classmates explain that he does not speak any English. A girl rushes over to translate and, within seconds, a smile breaks out on his face as he tells me his name. But his shyness is obvious.’
‘A girl from Romania, sitting opposite, is also withdrawn. Again, her classmates try to rouse her and Romanian word for hello – buna – is repeated by a gaggle of the children.’
I require further clarification as to how these exchanges demonstrate tension between pupils, as these scenarios for me only serve to bring to mind the adage of ‘someone only seeing what they want to see’ and appear to be hyperbolic in the least. Indeed, the article is peppered with words and phrases such as:
- ‘dialects echoing across the playground’
- ‘huge melting pot of nationalities’
- ‘multi-ethnic staff’
- ‘a worrying trend taking place all over the UK’
- ‘conveyor belt of new arrivals’
- ‘how pupils and staff cope at an institution where dozens of extra foreign pupils arrive every year.’
These paint a picture of a school struggling to cope with the number of pupils, where people are forced into embracing diversity against their will and of the need for crackdowns amidst a swarm of migrants entering the country, not of a school that has been rated ‘Good’ by Ofsted and has had a 10% increase in results in the last three years.
Instead, the Sun’s clumsy and inaccurate reporting of a school taking an inclusive approach to education and implementing successful techniques to support pupils with EAL creates fear and loathing where there does not need to be any, a mechanism which the Sun and many others so often utilise in order to generate profit, whilst having the effect of whipping up hatred of anyone thought to be different, feeding into the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the last few weeks and contributing to an already alarming climate of intolerance towards anyone not White British.