DfE urged to reconsider decision to withdraw EAL proficiency measure

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The government is being urged to reconsider its decision to withdraw the Proficiency in English Scale from the School Census from January 2019.

It comes after a report into the education of student with English as an additional language (EAL) concluded that the Proficiency in English Scale is the “best predictor” of EAL learners’ attainment.

Published by the University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, the report urges schools to continue using the scale “to assess the proficiency in English of their EAL pupils” and to “identify need and target support”.

The report analyses January 2017 School Census data of more than 140,000 pupils attending 1,569 schools across six local authorities. It found that learners with EAL are a heterogeneous group encompassing 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 highlights that the EAL label in itself is a poor indicator of likely outcomes. Instead, proficiency in English is central to understanding achievement and levels of need.

The report finds that English proficiency can explain 22 per cent of the variation in EAL pupils’ achievement. It states: “EAL researchers and practitioners have for a long time discussed the imprecision of the binary EAL measure in the School Census that masks huge differences in English language skills.

“The EAL definition groups together a diverse and heterogeneous group of pupils (e.g. those who are recent arrivals to the country with little or no English and those who have an additional language as part of their cultural heritage but are also fully fluent in English) all in a single group, irrespective of their actual language skills.

“The results confirm that the Proficiency in English Scale is a vital indicator of EAL pupils’ language proficiency and the best predictor of their educational attainment.”

The DfE introduced its five-point Proficiency in English Scale in 2016, bringing England into line with Wales and Scotland. The scale ranges from A to E with the five points being: New to English, Early acquisition, Developing competence, Competent and Fluent.

However, a recent DfE announcement confirmed that from January 2019, it will no longer require schools to complete the scale.

Professor Steve Strand, one of the report authors and professor of education at the Oxford University Department of Education, said: “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 DfE to reconsider this decision and to include the data in the National Pupil Database so that further research can be conducted.”

Elsewhere, the report warns that EAL is not just an issue for the early years or key stage 1, there is also a need for support at later ages for some pupils.

While support in early education is the most common and has the biggest impact, one in six EAL pupils in key stage 4 still have clear support needs, the report adds. It states: “In later years, support may be needed for fewer pupils, but is still warranted, particularly for pupils who are new to the country.

“If the aspiration of the school system is to provide full access to the English language curriculum to all pupils, language support would still be needed for one in six EAL pupils at key stage 4, where 15 per cent were judged less than competent in regard to their proficiency.”

Commenting on the report, Diana Sutton, director of The Bell Foundation, said: “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 DfE to use the evidence contained in this report to provide more comprehensive guidance for schools to undertake EAL assessment.”

  • The report, English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement, (University of Oxford, The Bell Foundation and Unbound Philanthropy, October 2018) can be found at http://bit.ly/2CITSrF
  • The Bell Foundation is currently writing a series of articles for SecEd offering best practice advice for schools on supporting EAL pupils: http://bit.ly/2pQGHfX


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