An open letter to the New Secretary of State for Education

Following the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minster, Gavin Williamson took office as the new Secretary of State for Education. As with all such appointments, NALDIC has written to welcome him to the sector and to urge him to engage with EAL. This post contains the full text of our letter.

Dear Mr Williamson

I am writing on behalf of NALDIC, the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum. We work on behalf of the 1.5 million children in the UK for whom English is an Additional Language (EAL) and are committed to promoting the learning and achievement of bilingual pupils in schools. We draw our membership from those who work in this field in schools, universities and other educational institutions. We would like to congratulate you on your new appointment and welcome you to the education sector.

The Prime Minister, Mr Johnson, has pledged to ensure that ‘kids get a superb education wherever they are in the country’. We welcome his ambition and recognise that to achieve it we need to put language at the centre of our teaching. A language-rich curriculum is essential for all children. This means an understanding of language structure as well as a grasp of how fluent, persuasive prose is constructed. It means exposing children to rich and rewarding examples of texts, and engaging them in purposeful discussion. It means understanding how exposure to English and explicit language teaching work in tandem. A teaching profession that is alive to the power of language is one that changes the lives of all children in our education system, from the most affluent to the most disadvantaged.

A language-rich and language-aware curriculum also has a positive effect on our EAL pupils. We are heartened by Mr Johnson’s vision of an ‘outward-looking and truly global Britain, generous in temper and engaged with the world’. We recognise that our bilingual pupils bring the languages and cultural awareness that will be vital to such an endeavour. There is a large and robust body of evidence to this effect, which establishes the benefits of bilingualism to both the individual and the wider society. We are concerned, however, that the Department’s recent actions have not promoted the interests of such children, primarily through the withdrawal of the Proficiency in English measurement and the withdrawal of established EAL guidance for schools. We want to take this opportunity to share some key findings with you.

  • Bilingualism is an asset, both for young people and for the country.

The young people in our schools speak over 300 languages between them. Recent studies have shown that young bilinguals can achieve at the highest levels of the curriculum when given adequate time and support and to develop their command of academic English. There is further evidence that monolingual children benefit (in terms of curriculum attainment) when taught in classes with multilingual children. At a time when Britain is renegotiating its place in the world, EAL children have an enormous amount to contribute.

  • National statistics are a poor guide to multilingualism and EAL.

The EAL classification in the National Pupil Database identifies whether or not a young person is believed to speak another language in addition to English. It does not convey what languages pupils speak, nor how proficient they are in their languages – a point made clearly in last year’s report by the Education Policy Institute and in several recent large-scale studies by researchers at the University of Oxford. The removal of the recent Proficiency in English measure was a retrograde step. Its absence denies the teaching profession vital information about EAL learners and thus undermines the planning of appropriate provision for this considerable segment of the school population. We urge you to demonstrate ministerial leadership and reconsider the decision taken by your predecessors to remove the requirement to robustly assess EAL learners’ English proficiency.

  • Britain is a multilingual country in a multilingual world.

Finally, we would like to recognise the many languages that are part of everyday life in the UK. This is not a question of integration; it is a reflection of an increasingly connected world and the enormous contribution that young migrants are making to our country’s growth.

Our recommendations

The words of one of your predecessors, Michael Gove, during the 2016 referendum brought into question whether expertise matters. We believe that it does, and these recommendations are based on solid research evidence:

  1. Emphasise EAL in initial teacher education.
  2. Support the development of a nationally recognised teaching qualification in EAL.
  3. Bring ministerial oversight to the (now withdrawn) Proficiency in English measure.
  4. Initiate a review of access arrangements for formal assessments.
  5. Ring-fence funding for all teachers to develop expertise in teaching bilingual learners.

The multilingual children in our schools are a vital resource for this country, but they have been neglected by the Department for far too long. As the subject association for EAL we have nearly thirty years’ experience of practice and research with multilingual children. We would like to invite you or a member of your team to join us at our annual conference in London on 16 November 2019, where they could meet specialist teachers and researchers. We would also, of course, welcome an opportunity to meet and discuss our findings further with you or your colleagues.

Yours sincerely,

Professor Victoria Murphy

Chair, on behalf of NALDIC.