Bright bilingual migrant children 'placed in low ability classes'

14 September 2011

Bright children from migrant backgrounds are routinely placed in classes for low ability pupils because bilingualism is still wrongly associated with special educational needs, a new study suggests

Although a substantial minority of schools now have an enlightened approach to  bilingualism, too many are still failing to recognise the potential of children new to English, says Dr Dina Mehmedbegović, of the Institute of Education, University of London.

"The entire school workforce needs to be better trained in order not to fail the growing multilingual school population", she will tell the European Conference on Educational Research in Berlin today. "It is not just vital from a teaching perspective. It is a social justice imperative."

Dr Mehmedbegović says that trainee secondary teachers who took part in a pilot English as an Additional Language (EAL) programme at the Institute of Education earlier this year found that every one of the bilingual learners they were shadowing had been placed in low ability sets even though they outperformed pupils in higher sets.

There is evidence that too many primary schools adopt similar practices. Research that she and her IOE colleagues conducted for England's Training and Development Agency for Schools suggests that even young bilingual children sometimes feel they are given academically inappropriate work in schools which group children by ability. One interviewee quoted a Punjabi-speaking Year 4 girl in a rural school who said: 'I don't know why I am here. I did this Maths two years ago'.

The Training and Development Agency has said it would like every member of the teaching force to be better equipped to address the needs – and talents – of EAL learners. But it is unlikely that this goal will be achieved soon, Dr Mehmedbegović says. The Coalition Government says that EAL teaching should remain a priority for schools but funding for the Training and Development Agency's work in this area has ended.

Meanwhile, existing training courses for headteachers and classroom teachers continue to seriously underplay the importance of EAL teaching, which still has relatively low status in many schools. Newly qualified teachers often receive only one lecture on EAL during their training course and previous research has indicated that 70 per cent of them do not feel equipped to engage with bilingual learners.

Local authorities have lost specialist EAL advisers following government cuts, Dr Mehmedbegović adds. Schools also complain that they lack the resources to deal with the number of bilingual learners on their roll. Government figures suggest that English is not the first language of at least 15 per cent of primary pupils in England and 11 per cent of secondary pupils. More than half the children in inner London schools are now thought to be EAL pupils.

One educational expert interviewed for the Training  and Development Agency study told the IOE researchers: "There is just not enough funding to meet the needs. We all hear about the £20 million that is dished out by central government under the Standards Fund but then you go into a school in a deprived borough in London with three quarters of its pupils being bilingual, including a good proportion of new to English youngsters, and you will see a grant in the order of £30,000."

Although the majority of EAL pupils are in urban schools the number of migrant pupils moving to schools in rural areas is increasing too. In some cases where there is no history of EAL teaching, new bilingual pupils are automatically placed on the special educational needs register. The IOE research also suggests that  in some parts of England these children have been receiving as little as two hours' specialist teaching a week and have been working mainly with teaching assistants.

"Perhaps this is unsurprising as the focus on bilingualism in schools has traditionally been about remedying deficiency," Dr Mehmedbegović says. " Descriptions such as 'children with no language', 'severe EAL' and 'children with bilingual problems' are not uncommon, even today. I recognise that many teachers work with the best intentions for their pupils but this kind of terminology hardly helps to create a context in which children can succeed.

"As a result, many bilingual secondary children identify themselves as monolingual. Their experience is that their home languages are of little value in the education system."

The conference paper that Dr Mehmedbegović is presenting is entitled: "Reflecting on the Provision for Equipping the School Workforce in England for a Multilingual School Population: Research Conducted with Experts." The ECER conference is being held in the Freie Universität Berlin.

Further information

David Budge
07881 415362

Notes for editors

1. The study that the IOE researchers undertook for the Training and Development Agency for Schools was undertaken between November 2008 and April 2009. It had four strands and used a range of methods and approaches: a research review, mapping the national and international relevant research since 2000; case studies of EAL provision in schools collected in a variety of settings; interviews with a group of experts in education and a written consultation with a group of EAL specialists; and a national online consultation of the workforce.

2. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.

3. The European Conference on Educational Research is the annual meeting of the European Educational Research Association. It is being held between September 12 and 16. This year's conference theme is urban education.