Child Development and Education

Tackling underachievement: An Investigation of how schools endorse EAL children with their learning

This essay will critically analyse the approaches taken by multi-agency-professionals in supporting underachieving children who learn English as an additional language (EAL) in the Primary sector. Firstly, a terminology EAL will be provided with a deeper understanding of the diversity of leaners who come from a variety of social, culture as well as linguistic backgrounds. The gist behind this is to determine who classifies under the label of ‘underachievement’. Secondly, an emphasis is drawn to the importance of good leadership as well as the challenges when it comes to such diversity.  And lastly, a well-structured multi-agency-working agenda goes beyond the school premises when approaching the underachievement of EAL children. Therefore, an in-depth investigation on parental involvement will be made with the focus of the challenges faced by minority parents. In doing so, Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of ‘Cultural Capital’ and ‘Habitus’ will be taken as a theoretical perspective to understand the educational system from a different angle when explaining the struggles of EAL children to’ fit in’.  In analysing these issues, the concept of Bronfenbrenner’s ‘Ecological model of human development’ will be used throughout the essay to examine individuals’ associations within schools and the wider society.

Looking at EAL children, research shows that they have unique needs which are in urge to be addressed appropriately by the schools, policy-makers and the parents (Reynolds, 2008). In doing so, it is important to consider the social networks embedded within the child in order to understand its development and learning experiences. Haney and Hill (2004) argued that, there are specific influences in the wider ecological framework hindering children’s learning process. With this, they refer to the concept of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory (ref), emphasising the importance of the microsystem where ‘…the role of proximal relations upon learning and behaviour’(ref), for example with friends/peers, family and teachers/schools, can determine the child’s success and development. This context is given the most attention in the discourse around the issues of child’ development and learning (Tudge and Hogan 2005). However, there are also other researchers such as Hughes (1996) who viewed the factors stemming from the relationships within the home-school settings; this recalls the mesosystem while others examine the exosystem which highlights issues around governmental policies or interventions (Alexander 2004).

Before going into depth, it is important to clarify who the term EAL refers to and the complexity which comes with it. Haslam et. al (2005) identified EAL as an additional language to their preferred language spoken at home or in the wider community, they are, however in need to acquire the English language as soon as possible. It is also recognised that, Bi-lingual learners combine two languages at home such as English and the mother language (DfES 2006a). This is a very broad definition of EAL as for many, they are not seen as a homogenous group, however it compasses a variety of learners coming from a diverse social, culture and different linguistic background. This notion is also evidenced by Gibbon (2009), who stated that, the term EAL includes second or third generation ethnic minority children who are fluent in English and use it in their daily routine but are also exposed to a different language as part of their cultural tradition (the good ref). On the other hand, there are those who are literate in their native language while others have limited or non-literacy ability in any language; some are fluent in spoken English but poor in reading and writing and there are those who have some sort of competence in reading and writing but lack of conversational ability.

With this being said, Strand and Demie (2005, 2006) highlighted that, the notion of underachievement is not a straightforward association within the EAL sector because of its vagueness. Considering the statistics on EAL children, they have identified that achievement is strongly influenced by locality, ethnicity and stage of schooling. Research have indicated that White Other, Black African and Pakistani children do less well than other groups. Furthermore, children being in the UK for at least five years before undergoing examination are achieving higher than those of recent arrivals. Despite factors of ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds, researchers such as Demie (2011) considered the stage of fluency being the most striking and significant indicator of attainment. This is also shown in the examination results at KS2 and GCSEs: in an inner-London LA the examination results in these fields, revealed that children with low English acquisition EALs had considerably lower KS2 tests scores in all subjects compared to native peers. Whereas, those who spoke fluently in English outperformed their monolingual peers in all KS2 exams and at GCSEs (Demie, 2011).  Knowing children’s proficiency in English is a central factor when speaking of EAL underachievement as it helps school leaders and teacher to determine appropriate teaching pedagogy. In 2018, it was reported that, leading academics are now urgently demanding the DfE to restore data on children’s level of proficiency to the school census. Professor Strand, author of the Bell Foundation, stated that the “… scale is the best predictor of EAL learners’ educational attainment’ and therefore abolishing such useful data is a ‘… retrograde step, and potentially a damaging one’(ref). 

However, in order to ensure the progress of children struggling with the English language; the government have provided extra funding for a period of three years to LAs.  In 2015-16 each EAL child received a minimum of £466 in the primary sector and £1,130 for secondary school children (DfE, 2014e). Critics come to word, stating that the pace of acquiring the English language can take up to two years to be fluent in spoken English whereas the duration of fluency in academic English would take up to seven years (Cummins, 2001). This was also evidenced by Ofsted (2001) who estimated five to seven years in becoming fully competence in a second language.

Leung (2007), speak of bigger issues stating that children learning EAL struggle not only to acquire the English language outside the school premises but also ‘fight’ to catch up with the curriculum. The Swann Report (1985) led to the inclusion of mainstream classroom to EAL children within the rational of acquiring the English language simultaneously with the curriculum. This presents difficulties, according to Leung (2007) ‘… the National Curriculum (NC) is spirally based, with the knowledge and skills of previous years being progressively built upon’ (ref).  The Bell Foundation has recognised this as well arguing that ‘… It is proficiency in the English language that is the major factor influencing the degree of support an individual student will require…’ (ref). Going back to Haslam et. al (2005), he urges the provisions for EAL learners to be inclusive, multi-facet and cross-curricular and inform every part of school life.

In investigating on effective school leadership, Ofsted (2010a) have found features which makes a school approach work well, these included: ‘…professional development of staff; consistency of approach; quality of support and care; a can-do culture; high self-esteem; outstanding relationships (Ofsted, 2010b),  Wenger (1998) acknowledged this as well but also gives prominence to ‘…professionals’ constructions of their identities in shared practices and learning within multi-professional teams (ref-book1). The team members are working together to build strong relationship with the social communities as a whole. However, it is important to note that, not all leaders manage their schools this effectively when encountered with an increasing intake of EAL children. The reasons for this, is argued to be the very unevenly distribution of EAL pupils in England. Statistics by the DfE (2011) showed that, the range of EAL across the country differs from 4.3% in the Southwest to 52% in inner London. More than half of EAL learners are placed in only 20 of the 150 LAs in England; three quarters of schools have less than 5% EAL children (DfE 2011). This presents challenges for leaders; on one side they lack the necessary experience of how to best approach the pedagogical learning needs of such group as well as managing diverse staff members. On the other side, struggle to keep up with the high demands of the increasing governmental mandates, managing plethora regulations as well as quantity of reforms. It was reported that, staff sensed a ‘added pressure’ to perform, more surveillance and lack of trust. Leung and Franson (2001) suggested that, theses voices of concern reflected an increasing ‘climate of fear’ that EAL children have on the overall standards of teaching. They go further by arguing that, for many school leaders, especially in the primary setting, due to their language fluency, EAL pupils present a threat to maintain academic standards and the scholarly attainment of native children.  

Taking a theoretical perspective on how to overcome these challenges, Engestrom’s (1999) activity theory acknowledges that ‘… conflict is inevitable as tasks are redefined, reassigned and redistributed within changing organizations and teams in the world of work’ (ref the book). He emphasised that conflict needs to be voiced and debated freely to form new practice and knowledge, this he calls ‘expansive learning cycle’ (Engestrom, 2001). To result in change, all parties work through the process of voicing differences, displaying, discovering alternatives, finding solutions and agreeing and implementing activities.

With this being said the Bell Foundation suggests: in order to optimise the attainment of EAL children, a robust ‘professional knowledge base’ is required; this can be widely developed and shared amongst school staff as well as educational communities. This is where the importance of the EAL co-ordinator plays a vital role, according to the Bell Foundation, they collect information on EAL children and transmit it to teachers, organise an effective approach to their learning needs, and endorse an assurance of children’s social, academic integration and linguistic progress.

Furthermore, research indicates that ‘good practice’ rests on the fundamental notion of differentiation- a child- centred holistic approach based on the individual needs within different contexts (Tomlinson, 2000). Research has shown that collaboration with teachers and bilingual teacher assistants (BTA) have a positive impact upon EAL pupils’ educational outcomes (Bourne 2001). This was also suggested by the EAL Nexus highlighting a multi-cultural professionalism approach. BTAs are able to,

  • Assess prior knowledge from previous education
  • Assess first language proficiency
  • Pre-teach concepts in the first language
  • Translate key words and discuss the meanings with learners
  • Interpret and explain instructions

As a result, EAL children are encouraged to draw on their linguistic, religious and cultural knowledge; this will then stimulate their self-esteem and sense belongingness but also access the curriculum more confidently (Bourne, 2001).

Another aspect which hinders or have influenced educational outcomes for EAL children, is parental involvement and their relationship within the school setting- this ‘relationship’ is referred to as the mesosystem which interlinks with the microsystem as well (Bronfenbrenner,19). It argues that, maintaining a rich linkage between the mesosystem and the microsystems, both parties would have an effective and bi-directional interaction (ref the website). In this regard, Harris and Nelson (2017), speak of ‘transactional communication’- a process that is ‘…fluid, multidirectional and progressive, focusing on a mutual assignment of meaning’ (Harris and Nelson, 2017 cited in web) which privileges, proper cooperation among the schools, their teaching staff and pupils and the families and communities that they serve. Epstein (2017) regards a healthy relationship procedure based on the fundamental of reciprocity, this will have a positive outcome for the EAL child’s learning as well as their educational attainment. However, in a contrast where such reciprocity between home and school environment breaks down, the qualities and values of the microsystem decreases, and it becomes impoverished and will most likely result negatively in the child’s educational experiences (ref the website bron).

While this seems to be a straightforward procedure of healthy relationships, Pierre Bourdieu’s theory argues differently. His concept of ‘Cultural Capital’ (ref the web), comprises between ‘…linguistic and cultural competence ‘(Bourdieu, 1973, p.38) as well as the knowledge and a familiarity to interact within the dominant culture. Thus, these traits are rarely presented when speaking of minority middle class culture. Li (2006) further argued that, schools’ expectations regarding parental involvement supports the contention of middle-class white parents’ involvement style, their capacity and beliefs. This has emphasised, according to Schneider and Arnot (2018), the association of parental involvement with the normative notion of ‘good parenting’- a quality, assumed to be possessed by white middle-class parents. Schools define ‘good parenting’ when they participate within ‘specific scripted school activities’ and types of home-learning support such as helping with homework, discussing the school days etc (Lopez, 2001). Lopez (2001) argued further that, parental actions are problematic if it is narrowly perceived on a ‘one size fits all’ basis, forced, prescriptive and institutionalised. The concept of parental involvement reflects overall communication process which focuses on parental adaption to the values, learning strategies and knowledge defined by the school.

In a recent research conducted by the Bell Foundation (2017), the importance of parental involvement was emphasised as parents of EAL children showed a high interest in the education of their child. The research also discovered that, these groups of parents are hardly represented in the decision-making process of the school for example parent-governors. This would, if such representation was practiced, give the school effective information regarding EAL parents and the issues faced. In this regard, Pushor (2012) analysed about a shared landscape where “parent knowledge and teacher knowledge informed decision making, the determination of agendas, and the intended outcomes of their efforts for children, families, the community, and the school’’. In this context, professionals working with parents formulate new ideas and strategies for the child’s successful development.

Ishimaru (2014) evaluated even further by warning schools not to pathologize parents from ethnic minority groups as ‘failures’; especially those communities who are in greater risk of being vulnerable and marginalised because they may experience language difficulties and/or are new arrivals to the country etc. Rendering Bourdieu’s notion again, the use of a specific language is seen a strand of capital because it can ‘…wield symbolic power’ (Bourdieu, 1991). He goes on to suggest that, the teachers perpetuate the use of a particular type of language which is recognised as more powerful than others and thus the standard against which all language use can be maintained (p. 45). In England, this would present itself as teachers and curriculum architects assuming that the superiority of Standard English which is a common language and provides a scope to enhance communication. Thus, the English language itself is a form of capital, ownership of which acts as major factor to achieve educational success (Luke, 2008). These shortcomings have been conveying an immense impact upon educational experiences and leads to the contribution to produce a greater tendency of underachievement amongst EAL children.

Taking this into consideration, Schneider and Arnot’s (2018) research on parental involvement in three schools, indicated that 75 per cent of parents view the school website as a weak communication tool, whereas school professionals assumed that parents could easily access information in regard to GCSEs, assessments, homework etc. via the school website. It is noteworthy here to point out that these school websites were presented in English and did not facilitate any translation methods. (ref) The Bell Foundation (2017) stresses on the availability of translations of all general information on the school website for parents whose English level is poor. There are other strategies such as developing simple content for the parents, include glossaries for transacting one complex word in English to other local languages are beneficial to make the content understandable for the parents and enhance communication between the school and parents.  Cline and Crafter (2014) argued that, the schools rely heavily on children translating information to their parents, this is seen as a problem.

There are other ways in which schools can improve communication via parents, one of which is - as mentioned earlier, the use of bilingual teacher assistants. They can be an invaluable resource when it comes to the communication between parents and teachers, explaining the education system or when parents have concerns regarding the child’s progress etc. Furthermore, organisations such as Renaisi provide effective provisions for schools, bilingual parents and their children, as they ‘… see parental involvement as the foundation of academic success’ 

Renaisi’s Community Inclusion team have endorsement strategy services for bilingual parents as well as school support, to improve the attainment of EAL children. The focus behind this strategy is a sustainable relationship within schools and families, with a particular focus on parental involvement. There are various support plans which schools can receive; and these include:  access to interpretation services for specific events like parents’ meetings, devoted Community Engagement Advisor or parent-based support such as ESOL classes and much more. ESOL Nexus, is another useful tool for bilingual parents struggling with English who may not have the time to participate in ESOL classes; this is a free website from British Council, offering online support. These include a range of opportunities such as watching videos, exercising text and grammar for ESOL at any level, listening activities etc. Furthermore, like Renaisi, Nexus also has useful information regarding living in the UK and finding work opportunities for ESOL learners.

In conclusion, the issue of EAL underachievement is very complex due to its broadness. Some children from second generation have a good level of language fluency, however new arrivals on the other hand have less to non-language ability; making language proficiency the main factor for underachievement.  This needs to be acknowledged by the professionals dealing with such groups to determine appropriate teaching strategies. But many professionals encounter challenges, on one side, they lack the necessary experience of how to best approach the pedagogical learning needs of such group. On the other side, struggle to keep up with the high demands of the increasing governmental mandates and reductions. Therefore, all professionals working with vulnerable children need to consider a multi-agency approach which emphasis on good leadership, shared information strategies and a positive attitude towards diversity. If such features are presented, achievement will increase and lessen the stress factor of EAL children. Furthermore, in regard to parental involvement, it was highlighted that minority parents’ contribution within the learning and progress of their children are an essential factor. However, many barriers have been identified which hinders such contribution. There is this contention of the preference of middle-class white parents’ involvement style which schools view as ‘good parenting’. This is problematic for two reasons: a) it marginalises and discriminates any other style of parenting and b) because of that, minority parents are hardly represented in the decision-making process within the school. In addition to that, they experience language difficulties especially new arrivals and even though some have adequate English knowledge, it is argued that professionals perpetuate a particular type of language which is difficult to understand. The ‘use’ of EAL children as translators are seen problematic, instead schools need to find a better way in providing alternative solutions such as recruiting BTAs, providing translation for school websites etc. These ‘shortcomings’ have been leading to the contribution to produce a greater tendency of educational failures amongst EAL pupils. Therefore, in overcoming these barriers and avoidance of failure, changes need to be done by the schools and the parents. Schools are urged to be more inclusive within minority parents and take advantage of their experiences and knowledge. And the parents are also encouraged to participate within the school and learn the language is one step. Organisations like Nexus and Renaisi provide excellent support for parents and schools.


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