EAL and BME data collection : between a rock and a hard place


The recent furore about the changed Census requirements for schools as of September 1 was an accident waiting to happen.  As soon as the draft proposals were published last January, the professional EAL community were alert to the challenges and uncertainties. For free CPD, it’s well worth spending some productive hours retracing the discussions via a visit/search of the EAL Bilingual Googlegroup https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/eal-bilingual  hosted by the EAL Subject Association NALDIC  http://www.naldic.org.uk

As well as the new requirement to identify English proficiency stages for all EAL pupils ( via descriptors borrowed from Wales without consultation or research informed evaluation) , it was obvious that the DfE request for data about nationality and place of birth was going to be a hot potato. Appearing in the year of the Brexit vote and following years of toxic media coverage of migration issues, alongside total government neglect of EAL and multilingualism, it could hardly be anything else.

And so it has come to pass. EAL Assessment remains something of a wallflower at the Life After Levels party and is rarely mentioned in any high profile mainstream school accounts of new and exciting approaches to assessment, including those schools with EAL pupils, some well above 50%. It’s a lost opportunity in view of the ground breaking work on EAL Assessment currently taking place in the background, largely unnoticed by mainstream.  For example, the BELL Foundation funded project   https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/Work/EAL/Resources/GuidingprinciplesofEALassessment published its Guiding Principles of EAL Assessment last December and is due to release descriptors and case studies very soon. With 20% of our pupils having English as an Additional Language, this work warrants a wider conversation about how schools systems and structures can best respond.

In the meantime there are serious ongoing questions about the validity of any EAL proficiency data the DfE may extract from the Census return, although the problems of reliability probably won’t be fully revealed until the data analysis of the January 2017 return is published. There has been no national moderation or guidance beyond the Census instructions https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-census-2016-to-2017-guide-for-schools-and-las  Many schools still don’t  know  with any accuracy who their EAL pupils are, beyond the obvious new arrivals. If the Census belatedly requires all schools  to take notice of their Advanced EAL learners then the chances are that these young people will be ticked automatically as ‘fluent’ by whoever in the office does the MiS data transfer and even a skilled EAL professional like Kamil Trzebiatowski is wrestling with the challenges of mapping his existing EAL assessment systems onto the sketchy DfE descriptors https://ealjournal.org/2016/09/22/working-with-the-new-eal-stages

Meanwhile, the biggest Census kick off, predictably, has been the issue of parents providing their child’s nationality and place of birth.  There has now been extensive media coverage of some rocky school practice and the burgeoning boycott https://www.schoolsabc.net campaign, with Schools Week  providing both detailed coverage  http://schoolsweek.co.uk/pupils-who-were-not-white-british-told-to-send-in-birthplace-data  and a characteristically incisive editorial by Laura McInerney http://schoolsweek.co.uk/school-are-not-mini-immigration-offices-and-never-should-be before the dailies caught up.

I’m very grateful to Ross McGill, a stalwart supporter of diversity and social equity, for letting me guest blog about this on his Teacher Toolkit site and have my tuppence ha’penny http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2016/10/01/eal-census

There are huge issues intersecting here and I would like to supplement the blog post in a few areas. As time has gone on I’ve done a lot of thinking about some of the contradictions, much supported by this site   http://defenddigitalme.com

It feels to me that on so many of the issues at stake we are caught, perilously, between a rock and a hard place, paddling frantically to navigate our way round Scylla and Charybdis

  • We can challenge institutional complacency about EAL outcomes by providing detailed national data to support intersectional, disaggregated analysis– but is it naive to disregard what other uses this might be put to once it leaves us?
  • We know how important it is to cross reference ethnic identity with language use and other factors to ensure some pupil groups are not overlooked – but are we campaigning strongly enough to improve the poor labelling of ethnicity categories supplied by the DfE and the government?
  • Research tells us how important it is to capture the fullest possible portrait of an EAL child’s educational, linguistic, cultural, geographical, social/emotional context – but is there a risk of this process becoming another form to fill in, with sensitive, complex, confidential details indistinguishable from what the school is legally required to request for the Census return (and parents may refuse to reply).
  • We want to do the very best for our refugee children and asylum seekers but how can we evaluate this without being intrusive or breaching trust? (note that there is, rightly, currently no question about status in the Census)

I’ve been genuinely shocked to realise just how many parents didn’t know that there was a school census return three times a year which included their details, let alone that they have options not to respond in some areas. If that’s already the case, how many EAL parents know about the new proficiency stages? What are schools doing to share the judgements they make and the methodology used?

These difficulties notwithstanding, I do believe that it is both morally incumbent upon us and possible to make a better job of this. My advice, as I wrote on Ross’ blog, is to protect relationships with EAL/BME families and the school community through absolute transparency. The only way I can see to do this at the moment is to strip back admissions and annual information forms so that the questions asked about identity precisely match those of the Census (no more and no less) and parents are clear both which answers are voluntary and what the possible purposes and uses are. If EAL parents lose trust in the system as a whole and decline all questions then we are not in a good place.

But alongside meeting their legal obligations, schools still need to capture the confidential profile information about EAL (and when appropriate BME)  learners described above. Best practice EAL provision depends on it. Increasingly I would recommend that this is collected and kept quite separate from a formal admissions and annual update form, even if this means a certain amount of duplication.  Many of our young people have complicated journeys into our schools and we need to understand these in order to teach them well.  Often we do need to know where a child was born/grew up in order to do this. The same is true regarding how a family self describes in terms of nationality. It’s entirely possible that a family who trusts their school will be willing to have those conversations and share this personal information but still prefer not to return it as data to the DfE. We should respect that.

The key word which underpins the ‘how’ of the process is conversation. There is very little to be gleaned from a form. Indeed, forms can be very misleading as regards EAL children.  What is your Home Language?  is a question which rarely has a simple or single answer in multilingual households and I have not yet seen ‘It depends’ provided as one of the possible answers.

Schools are far better off adopting a questionnaire approach and encouraging discussion and dialogue. For example via the Family Languages chart here http://www.gold.ac.uk/clcl/multilingual-learning/complementarypartnerships

It’s just one example and a legacy document which might welcome a bit of reformatting but the research principles on which it is based are rock solid and the answers will yield information you can actually use.

If it’s helpful I can blog in more detail another time about pupil profiles and case studies/vignettes and how these can contribute to planning EAL provision.

Recent events have demonstrated just how urgently schools need additional support and guidance for EAL/BME matters.  As I have commented before, baseline knowledge about EAL and multilingualism across mainstream  teaching and leadership is very limited, with some honourable exceptions. If schools (and the DfE!) had consulted more widely then some of the howlers shared online might have been averted without jeopardising community trust. There are real dangers ahead when colleagues make it up as they go along.

I regularly flag up esteemed EAL colleagues on twitter, in presentations and across this blog.  I’m personally always happy to talk to schools although I’m transparent that I’m currently working independently so there is only so much I can do for free.

But one of the very best ways a school can buy into research informed, credible EAL professional guidance is to join NALDIC, the professional subject association http://www.naldic.org.uk  and follow the EAL Journal blog https://ealjournal.org  If you want full access to the Journal and its cornucopia of research, practice and policy then you will need to take out a subscription. http://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/NALDIC%20Membership%20Form%202016.pdf

A subscription also gets you reduced entrance to the NALDIC Conference which  is bang on the money for EAL provision in schools ‘ One Size Fits All? Addressing Diversity in EAL’, takes place in Sheffield on November 19 and gives a fabulous opportunity to network with schools in the same situation as you.

Just to be clear, all the above, the EAL Bilingual Googlegroup and the network of Regional support groups you can also access via NALDIC are provided by volunteers. NALDIC is a not for profit charity.  So if this post has ended, once again, as something of an advertorial for NALDIC, it’s not one which is going to make anybody, least of all me, rich. Copper bottomed investment for you guys though 🙂



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