When I started working in schools teaching drama classes, I was, and still am, hugely passionate about helping young people find their voice and the importance of literacy and communication – key skills in the 21st century. It was only when I got to know educators across Birmingham that I was struck by the additional challenges that schools were facing. How do you help pupils express themselves fully when they are struggling to form simple sentences in English?
The scale of the issue is vast. There are currently over 1.5 million learners in the UK with EAL, or English as an Additional Language. That’s one in five pupils at primary level and one in six at secondary schools across the country, not counting independent schools or even considering the number of adults in workplaces across the country facing similar language barriers. Schools in the West Midlands are feeling the weight of the issue acutely, with EAL students making up 44% of Birmingham’s pupil population.
Having been struck by these staggering statistics I wanted to investigate further. This is an issue felt not only by the students themselves, who are trying to get to grips with a whole new language, as well as dealing with possible culture shock, social exclusion or past trauma, but by teachers who struggle with a lack of time, resources and suitably trained staff to cope with the numbers. Cuts to school budgets have been widely publicised in recent years and it can be specialist departments who often bear the brunt of this. Parents are also central to the matter. If family members struggle with the language, it can be very difficult for children to continue learning outside of school hours.
I’ve spent the past couple of months visiting schools and talking to practitioners about the creative ways they are tackling these challenges. The solutions have been eye-opening and massively encouraging. From buddy systems to EAL parents’ evenings and from after-school clubs to innovative technology, schools are adopting a range of methods to improve provision for EAL learners.
I spoke to Hollie O’Sullivan at Great Barr Academy where, of a population of 2,500 students, there are around 600 EAL pupils speaking over 20 home languages. The magnitude of the challenge is compounded by the fact that many new arrivals are illiterate in their native language or have never received formal education. The school is, however, determined to give pupils the best chance possible with a dedicated EAL support unit and an experienced pastoral team focusing on wellbeing and social integration. The school follows a structured induction system with regular assessment to monitor progress and provides specialist training for staff. Great Barr is also using technology in exciting ways to reduce teacher preparation and increase pupil engagement, notably through the FlashAcademy® platform, which Hollie told me, “has revolutionised their department”.
I’ve been particularly impressed by Learning Labs, the company behind the FlashAcademy® app, who have just won the West Midlands Tech Award for Innovation in Education. Adopted by over 20% of Birmingham schools, the platform allows pupils to learn English independently at their own pace and level via their home language through curriculum-mapped lessons, activities and games. The visual lessons support learners with low literacy, the teacher dashboard helps schools keep track of progress and access to the app at home means learning can continue outside of the classroom.
Claire Evans, Deputy Headteacher at Anderton Park Primary School, Sparkhill, also shared her school’s journey in recent years to improve measures for students speaking one of 39 different home languages. They are keen to try a variety of teaching methods to make English accessible for all and are passionate about celebrating diversity and promoting inclusion among their students. Having also implemented FlashAcademy®, the school uses the platform alongside established classroom methods so “children get the best of both worlds”, and, said Claire, “the fact that it can be used at home with families is a huge plus factor”.
These approaches have made me hopeful about our ability to contend with the EAL challenge and help disadvantaged pupils fulfil their potential. Open-minded practitioners who are welcoming innovative learning solutions and different types of technology into the classroom are helping to effectively transform these students’ lives. Educators should focus their attentions on the benefits of bilingualism rather than considering it a weakness, as improving EAL provision in schools has positive effects on overall literacy, school attainment and the general wellbeing of pupils.
I will be speaking more about EAL strategies at the EAL Birmingham conference in May to explore best practice techniques and would love to talk to more schools about their experiences and ideas surrounding EAL teaching. You can contact me on Twitter @NickBaileyLit.
Nicholas Bailey, best known for his role as Dr Anthony Trueman in EastEnders, has worked as an actor on stage and screen for over 20 years. He has now turned his attention to supporting young people in schools through drama and confidence-building workshops and is an Education Ambassador for FlashAcademy®.