Desperately Seeking EAL

They don’t seek it here, they don’t seek it there, the DfE seeks it – nowhere. Is it in heaven or is it in hell? The eternally elusive – EAL

with apologies to Baroness Orczy


Of course you don’t really have to look very far in the UK school system to find both EAL learners and issues for EAL provision which should impact profoundly on school systems and structures. It’s a curious situation indeed when just under 20% of our children and young people (as identified by the January 2015 census return) are deemed to be some kind of niche interest group within the national conversation about education.

However EAL learners are largely invisible unless they are new arrivals and framed by one of three positions.

i) There are too many of ‘them’, they deplete resources/are not sufficiently resourced and teachers don’t know how to teach ‘them’


ii)’They’ speak no English, or bad English or too much of another language


iii) Despite the above ‘they’ have better outcomes than monolingual children – for which ‘they’ may either be celebrated or castigated – or both simultaneously


All of the above, except the lack of guidance and support for teacher knowledge and expertise, are founded more on myth and misconception than reality.


  • The numbers of new arrivals are pretty stable across the country. Of course it may not feel like that if your own class or school suddenly acquires a different demographic. However, the 0.7% rise in EAL in 2014/15 is largely an anticipated birth rate increase in families already in Britain and needs to be considered alongside the 2.7% increase in the pupil population as a whole. More additional children in the system are not EAL than are EAL.


  • There is EAL funding available for up to the first three years in Britain but because it is not ring fenced it may not get to point of need. It’s also questionable and under researched whether the new arrivals window is the most effective time to target money in relation to long term EAL outcomes.


  • Most teachers and school leaders are not well trained or supported with the knowledge and range of strategies needed for EAL provision, both strategic and in the classroom. No argument there.


  • EAL is a very large pupil group with a wide variety of fluencies and learning/individual contexts. There is a massed body of international research identifying the importance of recognising and developing L1 skills in order to support the development of English. This doesn’t just mean depending on conversational ‘as it comes’ L1 but whenever possible actively supporting academic fluency/literacy in the child’s strongest language while English is being learned – and encouraging L1 maintenance when English fluency achieved. It’s also quite unusual for any but the youngest children to have no English at all. The influences of global linguistic imperialism and anglophone media are still pretty powerful.



It requires knowledge and persistence to interrogate EAL data effectively. You also have to be determined since you only get a true picture by cross referencing both language and ethnicity information and this information is only readily available outside of your own school/LA/MAT via a FOI. Fortunately we have tenacious colleagues such as Feyisa Demie in Lambeth who are doing this work. The link below is to an analysis of Primary EAL outcomes in Lambeth. I believe analysis of Secondary  outcomes is on the way.

An overview of EAL data issues can also be found in a Schools Week article last year featuring incisive analysis from Graham Smith of the EAL Academy.


It’s ironic that a period which celebrates knowledge, mastery and research evidence completely ignores all of these things when it comes to EAL. I read recently in a blog post that the writer had done a few weeks’ reading about EAL (after a brief experience in a particular context) and come to the conclusion that opinions about EAL differed and she would make up her own mind. That is not an untypical response and it saddened me.

There is in fact a very strong international research consensus about the principles of Second Language Acquisition and the pedagogies which support it in various contexts.  It is true that much remains to be done in terms of researching long term trajectories and the detailed mosaic of intersecting influences on both individual EAL learners and patterns across groups and settings – but the findings across such topics as the impact of first language on learning are reliably consistent.  Of which more later since it deserves a post of its own.

As I explained in my School’s Week column this weekend Nobody puts EAL in the corner | Schools Week  the confused and somewhat perverse response to EAL learners outlined above stems from a deliberate and possibly strategic neglect from the top. I don’t have any illusions that writing editorials is going to shift the DfE  position. I’d be very surprised if any such august persons bothered themselves with my views whether I’m writing for large publications or on my little blog. I’m certainly not sitting by the phone waiting for a phone call inviting me to an EAL Steering group.

If those with knowledge about EAL sit quiet and compliant then they are likely to remain wallflowers in the corner a while yet. However it’s not really the DfE I want to connect with when I bang drums and thump tubs in an attempt to get to do a swallow dive with the late lamented Patrick Swayze.

I am most hopeful that if I and others can reach enough head teachers and system leaders who are willing to share, review and be willing to refine their existing EAL provision then a tipping point can be reached whereby it becomes axiomatic for schools to plan strategically for EAL centred on best practice principles.

When someone creates a bright burning fire why would you not choose to sneak a few glowing embers for yourself.

Best practice EAL is a crucible for so much more than just bilingual outcomes

I just read this from Becky  @shadylady222 and it made my heart sing. Enjoy


Next post  :  more about my EAL review agenda and practical next steps

EAL Data and Assessment

EAL Funding

EAL Sector and Support

First language maintenance






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