EAL English Proficiency and Attainment: What does the national EAL assessment data tell us?

In 2016 the government introduced the requirement for schools to report the level of English proficiency for children classified as learning English as an additional language (EAL). This has provided a new opportunity to understand how English proficiency and academic attainment are related, giving teachers information that can help them plan effective teaching approaches for pupils with EAL. Dr Feyisa Demie of the University of Durham recently published an analysis of these data for an inner London local authority, comparing English proficiency levels with attainment in national exams, such as SATs and GCSEs.  In the light of recently published DfE data on achievement at GCSE, the summary of  findings that Dr Demie presents here highlights the importance of disaggregating the term EAL when interpreting global findings.


Dr Feyisa Demie

There is a wealth of data that demonstrates that English proficiency is a major factor influencing the academic performance of EAL learners. The availability of England-specific language proficiency data allows us to look closely at what these data mean in relation to academic success for EAL learners in the English school system. Knowing the relationships between English proficiency and academic attainment helps teachers to understand the learning needs of their EAL learners, plan teaching that responds to those needs, and set realistic and evidence-based targets for learning for those pupils.

Using data from one Inner London local authority (LA) we plotted the profile of English language proficiency among its EAL learners, and compared English proficiency with Key Stage 2 (KS2) SAT results and GCSE results. EAL proficiency data from 17,571 EAL pupils was collected. KS2 SAT results were available for 2,957 pupils, and GCSE results were available for 1,953 pupils. We also compared the results for EAL learners against those of monolingual English pupils in the LA.

The main findings of the analysis were as follows:

Language profile of pupils in the LA’s primary and secondary schools

  • 49% of pupils in primary schools and 47% in secondary schools in the LA were classed as EAL.
  • Of these, about 8.3% were Stage A (New to English), 16.2% Stage B (Early Acquisition), 23.3% Stage C (Developing Competence), 23.2% Stage D (Competent), and 29.0% were Stage E (Fluent).

Demie 1

  • There is greater proportion of EAL pupils with low levels of English proficiency in Key Stage 1 than in later key stages. In KS2, more EAL pupils are at Stages D and E, and in secondary schools the majority of EAL pupils are classified as Fluent. In secondary schools there are also far fewer pupils at the early stages of English proficiency.

Demie 2

Relationships between English proficiency and academic attainment

  • When we compared levels of English proficiency with KS2 SAT results we found that no pupils at Stage A (New to English) achieved the expected standard of achievement. This compared with 12% at Stage B (Early Acquisition), 56% at stage C (Developing Competence), 66% at stage D (Competent) and 85% at stage E (Fluent). Overall the results of the KS2 analysis show that higher levels of English proficiency are associated with a higher likelihood of pupils reaching expected levels of attainment in the KS2 SATs.

Demie 3

  • Across Reading, Writing and Maths, those who were New to English or at Early Acquisition show very low attainment, but children with higher English proficiency tended to achieve higher scores. The achievement of EAL pupils who are fluent in English (Stage E) is high. In fact, the outcomes for EAL learners judged to be at Stage E score, on average, 14% higher than monolingual English pupils, and 16% higher than the average for all pupils.
  • Similar findings also emerged from the analysis of GCSE data at the end of secondary education. We found that no pupils at Stage A (New to English) achieved 5+A*-C including English and maths. This compared with 25% of pupils at stage B (Early Acquisition), 47% at stage C (Developing Competence), 68% at stage D (Competent) and 70% at stage E (Fluent). EAL pupils who are fluent in English performed better than English only speakers. About 76% of EAL pupils at Stage E achieved 5+A*-C including English and maths, compared with 56% of monolingual English pupils.

Demie 4

  • The GCSE data demonstrates that there is a strong positive relationship between stages of proficiency in English and academic attainment for these pupils. Pupils with high levels of English proficiency are, on average, more likely to reach benchmark standards than pupils with lower levels of English proficiency.


Overall, our findings support findings from other research that English language proficiency is a major factor influencing the academic attainment of pupils with EAL. The findings demonstrate that pupils in this LA who have acquired high levels of English proficiency are more likely to meet expected standards in both KS2 SATs and GCSEs. Pupils in the early stages of English proficiency performed at low levels in these exams. Achievement of EAL pupils who are fluent users of English far outstripped that of pupils for whom English was their only language. We conclude that the national EAL pupils’ English proficiency scale is useful as a diagnostic tool to inform teaching focuses, track progress, and provide baseline information for statistical purposes at the national and local levels.

Finally, we argue that the statutory requirement to assess and report English proficiency levels for EAL learners is a major step in the right direction in addressing the needs of EAL pupils. Our study represents a beginning into how these data can be used to examine the relationship between English proficiency and academic attainment in England, and it is our hope that it is a springboard for further research.  However, as with all new assessment systems, this one has strengths and weaknesses. It may take a few years for the national EAL stages to become fully established in schools’ data returns. This study identified some limitations and questions for future research including: Who should assess EAL pupils? Why do learners sometimes remaining at one stage for a long periods of time? What are the right times to assess EAL pupils? What are the implications of EAL assessment for training and moderation? How long do pupils tend to spend at each stage of English proficiency? To what extent do local variations of the proficiency descriptors used in some schools raise statistical nose in the national data?

This post is a summary of Demie, F (2018). English language proficiency and attainment of EAL (English as second language) pupils in England. Journal Of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. DOI: 10.1080/01434632.2017.1420658

Dr Demie’s profile at The University of Durham is here.