Written evidence submitted by The Bell Foundation
Education Select Committee Call for Evidence – Impact of Covid-19 on education and children services
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, the Foundation aims to improve practice, policy and systems for children, young people, adults and communities with English as an Additional Language in the UK.
The Bell Foundation works with a range of partners to produce robust, evidence-based research. We are responding to this call for evidence in order to highlight relevant research that was commissioned by The Bell Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy and the Education Endowment Foundation and undertaken with the University of Oxford which provides detailed evidence about the attainment of children with English as an additional language and specifically which children with EAL underachieve against the benchmark. It provides insights into the likely impact of school closures on students who speak English as an Additional Language (EAL).
‘A pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if she/he is exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English. This measure is not a measure of English language proficiency or a good proxy for recent immigration’ (DfE, 2020). This means that the EAL cohort contains a very diverse group of students. The EAL cohort would include for example a bilingual child of a French banker, a Syrian refugee, and a child of migrant agricultural workers. All these children would have very different educational profiles, different proficiency levels of English and they will differ significantly in their ability to access the curriculum and attain at or above the national average.
The evidence shared below demonstrates that in order to achieve in line with their English speaking monolingual peers, EAL pupils must reach a certain level of proficiency in English. This is needed for the student both to comprehend the content of the lesson taught by the teacher, and to express their understanding and knowledge of that subject. School closures will mean that it is likely that many EAL students will have been unable to develop their proficiency in English at the rate they would have had schools not closed, thereby delaying their ability to access the curriculum and to achieve. The language input from peers, teachers, and other adults in school and the explicit modelling of academic English experienced in the classroom are necessary for English language and literacy development. At home, children with EAL may not be exposed to a range of good models of English, the language of schooling, especially in homes where the parents may have low proficiency in English themselves. Parents who are themselves still acquiring English will not have the vocabulary or linguistic skills in English to model the language the students will need for academic achievement. This will also be true for other disadvantaged households, but will be particularly pronounced for disadvantaged households where the child and parents have English as an Additional Language. It is likely that the English language progression of many EAL children will have halted under school closures, and language loss can be expected to be similar to or greater than typical ‘summer learning loss’.
Although on aggregated data sets, EAL students outperform their monolingual English speaking peers, aggregation hides the significant disparity and variation in achievement within this heterogeneous group of students. Evidence from the Education Policy Institute shows that ‘average attainment figures for children with EAL are profoundly misleading’ (Hutchinson, 2018). The research notes that whilst it is ‘easy to conclude that the job of supporting EAL needs is successfully addressed on the basis of current official statistics that treat these children as a single homogenous group […] the above-average mean attainment for EAL children masks enormous variation between children with different first languages and different times of arrival. This creates a ‘misleading average’ problem when presenting statistics for EAL attainment’ (Hutchinson, 2018). Research has demonstrated that EAL as binary measure is a poor indicator of pupils’ likely level of educational achievement, instead, it is their proficiency in English that is central to understanding achievement and levels of support needed (Strand, 2018). In the 2018 study from the University of Oxford, just under half of all EAL pupils were rated by their teachers to have limited English language skills (New to English through to Developing Competence), and over half were rated as Competent or Fluent. Given that English is the language of instruction for all these pupils, such a range in pupils’ language skills is not trivial (Strand, 2018). Whilst pupils with EAL who are competent or fluent in English outperform their English speaking peers, pupils with EAL who are still acquiring English (New to English to Developing Competence) underperform compared to their English speaking peers at KS2 and KS4 (Strand et al., 2015) (Strand, 2018) (Strand, 2020). This means that EAL pupils who are in the acquiring English stages will have been at risk of underachieving prior to school closures, and under school closures will likely have been unable to develop their proficiency at the rate that they would have had schools remained open. This is likely to widen the achievement gap for these pupils or at the least, delay any closure of the gap.
The role of Early Years education in the achievement of EAL students
The effect of school closures on the early development of children with EAL is likely to be significant. Research published by The Bell Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy and the University of Oxford explored the interrelationship between EAL pupils, academic achievement, proficiency in English and other pupil and school characteristics using a dataset of 140,000 pupils, from 1,569 schools across six Local Authorities and England in 2017 (Strand, 2018), and the Welsh Pupil Level Annual School Census (PLASC) for all pupils in Wales between the 2009 and 2017 January School Censuses inclusive (Strand, 2020). Key findings that pertain to the development and achievement of children with EAL in the Early Years are detailed below. The research demonstrates that:
With the closure of EYFS providers many EAL children will not have had an adequate opportunity to develop their English language proficiency. Children with EAL who are still acquiring English will be one of the most at-risk groups of children affected by EYFS provider closure because with little or no exposure to English, the language of instruction, these children will be unable to access the curriculum. More positively, the evidence also suggests that if well supported at this stage of development, this group can perform well and even outperform by KS4 which will reduce the need for support later on (Strand, 2020).
An analysis of the dataset provided by Local Authorities in England showed that 70.6% of EAL children in reception are in the early stages of acquiring English (Strand, 2018). The figure below illustrates the proportions of EAL pupils at differing levels of proficiency across the school system in 2017 based on the LA datasets.
Figure 1: Proficiency in English by year group
The study analysed the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) and demonstrated the link between proficiency in English and achievement in the early years. The findings show that a child who is New to English will significantly underperform compared to their monolingual peers, with only 34.3% achieving a Good Level of Development (GLD) compared to 72.9% of monolingual children (Strand, 2018). The trend continues into KS1 and KS4 with increasing proficiency predicting higher achievement (Strand, 2018) (Strand, 2020).
The figure below illustrates the research findings for EYFS children and shows the percentage of EAL children with different levels of proficiency in English achieving a Good Level of Development (GLD). It is likely that the number of children with EAL not achieving GLD will increase with school closures due to the loss of school-based language learning.
Figure 2: End of Reception outcomes by proficiency in English
Given the link between proficiency in English and achievement, a delay in English language acquisition, such as one caused by school closure, will have a long-term impact since the earlier the pupil gains fluency in the language of instruction, the earlier they can access the curriculum.
Exam cancellations and fairness implication for pupils with English as an Additional Language
The cancellation of exams may have fairness implications for EAL students who are awarded grades in the Summer due to teacher bias. There are also fairness implications for students who either opt to- or have to (in the absence of an allocated grade)- sit Autumn exams.
Teacher bias in the grade allocation and rank order process
The evidence shared in the Equality Impact Assessment: Literature Review (Ofqual,2020) demonstrates that students with EAL are more likely to be underrated in teacher assessment than overrated. In all three research papers cited which looked at EAL, students with EAL were found to have an area of disadvantage in teacher assessment. Teacher assessment underrated EAL pupils in English (Reeves et al, 2001) (Thomas et al., 1998) which the Equality Impact Assessment noted was ‘particularly strong’, and EAL students were significantly disadvantaged in mathematics (Gibbons and Chevalier, 2008). This demonstrates a risk for students with EAL to be under-predicted in teacher judgements.
With no recourse to appeal on grounds of professional judgement or rank order, students have no protection from bias and would need to sit Autumn exams to achieve fair grades.
Fairness in Autumn exams
In addition to the potential to delay progression to the next stage of education or employment, Autumn exams present a further challenge in fairness for students with EAL. Language development does not occur in a vacuum and many pupils who are new to English or at the early acquisition stage and lower achieving EAL learners will have had limited access to models of academic English during school closures.
In exams students need to express their subject content knowledge through the medium of English. An EAL student may understand the concept being tested but lack the academic language to express their knowledge and understanding to an examiner. Therefore, EAL students need to have been given a fair opportunity to develop their proficiency, in line with the language development that would have occurred through rich input from and interaction with peers and adults in school and explicit academic modelling from teachers had schools remained open. Indeed, Ofqual has explicitly noted that teachers should consider the language development a student would have made and the impact that would have on their ability to express subject knowledge in their guidance for teachers in 2020:
“For students with English as an additional language (EAL), schools and colleges should consider the likely language acquisition a student would have made by the time of the exam, and any increased ability to demonstrate subject content knowledge, as part of this and reflect this in their judgement.”
Ofqual Guidance: Summer 2020 grades for GCSE, AS and A level, Extended Project Qualification and Advanced Extension Award in maths
If grades allocated in the absence of exams should consider the language acquisition a student would have made had schools not closed, it will be necessary for Autumn exams to make a similar adjustment or for a student to have had significant opportunity to catch up the lost language learning. Ofqual have noted that the request that GCSEs be scheduled for November reflected ‘concerns that students whose first language is not English might need extra time to catch up when they return to school, particularly if they have been living in an environment in which English is not routinely spoken (Ofqual, 2020)’. For this to be effective explicit teaching will be required during the Autumn term to accelerate the language learning. However, if schools are unable to re-open full time to affected students in September, further adjustment would be required.
Recently arrived students will have to sit Autumn exams as there will not be enough evidence of prior attainment for teachers to make a professional judgement and award them a grade. Late arrivals are already identified as an at-risk group (Strand et al 2015) (Hutchinson, 2018) (Strand, 2018). This may then be further compounded by being unable to progress to employment, post-16 study or higher education alongside their peers. Ofqual has approached organisations that represent higher and further education providers regarding private candidates that cannot receive grades and have been told that ‘they believe that institutions will consider a range of other evidence and information for these students to allow them to progress wherever possible’ (Ofqual, 2020). Currently this does not refer to recently arrived students who were unable to receive grades, but would have had the academic ability to achieve the needed GCSEs had the exams taken place.
Support for families during closures: Home learning and EAL
In addition to the challenges faced nationally (such as limited digital access related to low socio-economic status and parents with limited formal education themselves) EAL students in households where parents are still acquiring English face an additional language barrier. With school closures teachers need to communicate through parents, particularly in the primary settings where children need adult input and work less independently than secondary age students. Whilst school communication with parents who are new to English themselves or at the early stages of English language learning is a challenge for schools, the current volume of communication (daily lessons), sophistication of communication (subject content) and urgency of communication is much higher due to school closure. Anecdotal evidence suggests that whilst many schools work to get key information translated regarding school closures and health advice, we are not aware of attempts to get daily lessons translated. Although English-speaking parents can make use of resources such as Twinkl, Oak Academy and BBC Bitesize, these resources are less accessible for parents with low proficiency in English. For some households of children with EAL there may also been economic barriers to accessing digital learning, as there are nationally.
Summary and Recommendations:
There are three key concerns for the long-term impact on students with EAL:
Language investment in the early years reduces the need for support in later years (Strand, 2020). While pupils who arrive in the English system in later will need additional support, providing language development support in the Early Years is an efficient use of resources due to the higher number of EAL pupils with low proficiency in English in the Early Years, and an effective use of resources as it enables access to the curriculum to occur sooner which reduces the need to provide additional ‘catch up’ of subject content in later years. Measures taken now to address the language learning loss from EYFS provider closures should enable the cohort to access the curriculum sooner and ultimately perform well at KS4. The Bell Foundation recommends the following:
While the need will be greatest in EYFS, due to the high number of pupils still acquiring English, late arrivals to the school system and those who have not yet reached Competency or Fluency in English will also require the support described above.