Last week I popped up the road to the University of the West of England where the English as an Additional Language Conference was taking place. This day event was run in partnership between the University, local councils and organisations to explore how schools can ensure learners of English as an additional language make the maximum progress possible and how their presence can have a positive impact on schools and settings.
The day was mainly targeted at teachers and educators working in schools in the area and it was great for us to have the opportunity to meet people working in these contexts. While a lot of our publications are targeted at researchers working in educational contexts or students training to become teachers, and we meet these readers regularly at research conferences, we do also have some books aimed at a more general readership and so the conference was a rare but valued occasion for us to meet the other groups of people who are actually using our books.
The day was an opportunity for teachers to refresh their thinking on the subject and take the time to think about topics that their busy daily schedule may not allow, to keep EALs at the forefront of their minds and to share expertise. I was really impressed with the positivity that flowed through the day and how teachers were encouraged to help their pupils feel that they have something extra and not to feel that they have to keep quiet or be embarrassed about the skills that they have. It was also stressed that it is important to make EAL pupils feel safe following on from the EU referendum result, which is a new challenge for schools.
Speakers at the conference included Professor Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol who discussed “The London Effect” which is a term coined to describe how EALs in schools in London, where the proportion of EALs in schools is much higher than in the rest of the country, perform much better in terms of progress made from age 11 to 16, compared with their white British peers and with pupils in the rest of the country. When asked why EALs make such good progress he spoke of high aspirations, positive attitudes, effort and engagement. One quote that stuck with me from his talk was that migrants often have a “get up and go for it” attitude, after all, they did “get up and go for it” to take the plunge in moving to a new country.
I also attended a workshop run by Anne Margaret Smith (author of Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Differences) on how to tell if an EAL student is struggling due to the language learning process or because of underlying cognitive differences and another led by Bharti Joshi and Stephen Bray from the consultancy company Kick Start on how to ensure more advanced learners of English achieve their potential in both primary and secondary schools.
The final keynote was by Mark Sims from Ofsted and he spoke of how Ofsted inspectors are looking for pupils understanding, accepting, respecting and celebrating diversity, as shown by their tolerance and attitudes. This was followed by a session during which delegates could ask any of the speakers for their answers to questions they had. One of the most inspirational questions was when one of the delegates asked for examples of best practice and members of the audience chipped in with things that they are doing in their schools. Examples I heard throughout the day included a Somalian dads and children reading group, older EALs acting as buddies for new arrivals of the same language background, a school in Middlesbrough where new EALs are automatically put in the top set, breakfast reading groups, coffee mornings and many other ideas. It was, as one delegate put it, great to hear of all the initiatives already in action and the conference was a fantastic opportunity to share them with those who were looking for fresh ideas.