The Best Place For A Beginner Is…

Xian was a new arrival in Year 8 and as near to absolutely no English as you are ever likely to see. As the Head of EAL in a Newham school I interviewed him and his mum through a Chinese translator. Xian said he really enjoyed Maths and his mum said he was really good at it, so I asked how she knew. He came fifth in the province wide exam for twelve year olds, she told me. After the interview I looked the province up. It has a population of 72 million. So I reckoned that Xian was at least as good at Maths as most of our Maths teachers. Luckily for Xian, I was working in a school that believed passionately that in meeting the needs of new arrivals in the mainstream.  His Maths flourished and his English came quickly.

I remember Xian whenever I am asked by schools and local authorities: wouldn’t these new arrivals be better off in a specialist centre until they have enough English?  “Enough for what?” may be the obvious answer. Enough to understand the curriculum?  Enough not to be a worry for the teachers? Enough for performance in English that matches performance in the mother tongue? However, “enough for what” seems a bit glib to me. There is a serious debate going on up and down the country (see, for example,  Nick Morrison’s piece in The Guardian) What people really want to know is what is educationally good for new arrivals and what is legally permissible. So what is the legal position?

The law seems pretty straightforward and stems from the Commission for Racial Equality’s formal investigation into Calderdale Local Education Authority in 1986 (CRE 1986).  As Jonathan Brentnall puts it:

When the Commission for Racial Equality enquiry condemned the segregated arrangements that Calderdale Borough Council made for children who failed an English language screening test in the 80’s, key findings of their investigation were that ‘children in both language centres have no access to a normal school environment”…and that even in school-based language units ‘the range of subjects… was narrower than that covered by the mainstream classes… (they) had no practical classes, no music, no foreign languages and no specific periods for religious education’

That CRE report predates the introduction of the National Curriculum with its emphasis on curriculum entitlement and the strengthening of race equality legislation through the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000) and its subsequent incorporation into the Equality Act 2010. So the likelihood of such provision being illegal is now even stronger. The Commission for Human Rights and Equality includes the following in its guidance:

A school whose catchment area is inhabited predominantly by people for whom Bengali is a first language produces its prospectus only in English. This may suggest that only pupils for whom English is a first language are welcome at the school. If this resulted in Bengali parents not applying to the school, this is likely to be unlawful discrimination.

 The Equality Act 2010 requires public authorities, including schools to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation;
  • advance equality of opportunity between different groups;
  • foster good relations between different groups.

It is difficult to see how any of these things are likely to happen if a particular group of pupils is singled out and excluded from the schools everyone else goes to, lacks access to the full curriculum and doesn’t even meet pupils from other groups with whom good relations should be fostered.

And then there is Ofsted. The most recent guidance to inspectors, published in April 2014, says very clearly:

All EAL learners have a right to access the National Curriculum and the Early Years Foundation Stage. This is best achieved within a whole school context. Pupils learn more quickly when socialising and interacting with their peers who speak English fluently and can provide good language and learning role models.

Let’s go back to Xian and conclude by asking ourselves honestly what kind of Maths he would have been taught by what kind of Maths teacher in a centre for new arrivals and. Ah but, I hear you say, what about Jan who has just arrived from Eastern Slovakia with no literacy in any language? That’s a very good question, to which we will return.

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