The challenge of teaching over 4,000 pupils who speak English as a second language

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich. - Credit: Gregg Brown

The number of primary school children whose first language is not English has more than doubled to over 4,000 since the start of the decade in Suffolk.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich. - Credit: Gregg Brown

The figure rose at its fastest rate last year and could mean that one in 10 primary school students will not be fluent in the language by January 2018. It was one in 20 in January 2010.

Education chiefs in Suffolk insist children who speak English as an additional language (EAL) perform as well as native speakers and are valued for creating linguistic and cultural diversity.

Critics have warned that schools with large numbers of EAL pupils may find it difficult to address their particular needs, with other children receive less attention.

Nationally, teachers say they stay up until midnight writing individual lesson plans. Up to 50 languages are now spoken at school. Some teachers are learning Urdu and Arabic, but receive help from older students.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich. - Credit: Gregg Brown

Areas of the country with little history of immigration are also reportedly struggling to cope with extra numbers.

But not our region, which has a “proud tradition” of trading with and welcoming people from other countries, said Geoff Barton, headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds.

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“We should all see this as an opportunity to promote the international, outward-looking world-view that modern citizens need,” he said.

“In our experience, young people from overseas often have a positive attitude to learning and supportive parents.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich.

St Matthew's Primary School, Portman Road, Ipswich. - Credit: Gregg Brown

“However, this shifting intake to our schools does require new skills from teachers and teaching assistants. Specialist training is needed, and this comes at a cost.

“At a time when school budgets are facing massive pressures, we must look to the Government to make sure that the additional funding is required to help every child in our region.”

An analysis of Department for Education data showed there were 4,059 primary school children whose mother tongue was not English in January 2016 in Suffolk. This was an increase from 1,727 in January 2010.

The majority of EAL pupils in Suffolk originate from European countries, such as Poland, Romania and Portugal, as well as the Indian and Asian subcontinents.

Lee Abbott, headteacher at Hillside Primary School in Ipswich.

Lee Abbott, headteacher at Hillside Primary School in Ipswich. - Credit: Su Anderson

They face challenges with the national curriculum and the English language, but teachers, some of whom are bilingual, work hard to ensure a smooth transition and integration.

Graham White, who represents Suffolk on the National Union of Teachers’ national executive committee, said: “Multiculturalism is good and should be encouraged. Co-operation between pupils and developing empathy, consideration, compassion and understanding different cultures and traditions is an important part of education. And there are many examples of students from abroad who came into school at primary who go on to perform very highly at GCSE and A level.”

But he added: “One of the negative effects we have seen post-Brexit is the anti-foreign student and anti-particular culture from some. This is unacceptable in a civilised society.

“All students and families should be given the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do without being vilified, abused or made to feel unwelcome.”

St Matthew’s Primary School

There were three new starters at the school in Ipswich this term: a Romanian student in year six and Polish and Kurdish pupils in year one.

Around 40 languages are spoken at the school and about one third of year six leavers did not start at the school, which has over 410 pupils.

This is just a snapshot of the challenges facing Suffolk’s schools, amid claims that immigration might be placing the country’s education system under increased strain.

But it is a challenge that St Matthew’s is embracing. Ofsted upgraded the school’s rating from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ in June 2015.

“Pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is the glue that bonds this diverse and harmonious community together,” Ofsted wrote.

Headteacher Sue Todd said rising numbers of EAL students are “just one challenge in a huge mix of challenges in education”.

“All new children, EAL or other, feel welcome and quickly learn from each other,” she said.

EAL students can be given specialist support in small groups outside the classroom, lasting up to two years, depending on their age and ability.

“Some children from Ipswich have limited life experiences, and so realise there’s a world of opportunities awaiting them, raising awareness and aspirations,” Mrs Todd added.

I met with five EAL students in year six. One pupil, from Poland, who joined in year three, said she now thinks and dreams in English.

“In Poland, we learnt English, such as colours, food and body parts,” she said.

“My dad doesn’t speak English, so I tell my mum how school was and she translates it for him.”

Another Spaniard, of African origin, joined in year five, but says learning English in Spain has helped.

She said: “English is important because, if I moved to America, I would not need English help.” She said her confidence has grown after progressing from children’s stories to adult books and playing games which focus on pronouns and spelling.

Their collective grasp of the English language and perceptiveness was edifying, as was their courtesy and enthusiasm.

They want to preserve their cultural identities, but expressed keen desires to live and work in this country. Two want to become teachers, one a doctor, one a footballer – choosing Poland over England – and one a vehicle designer/engineer.

Hillside Community Primary School, Ipswich

Headteacher Lee Abbott insists they do not need to adapt their teaching to benefit pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) at the expense of English-speaking pupils.

Around 58 languages are spoken at the school, attended by 461 pupils. The actual number of EAL pupils is around 30 to 35.

“Good practice for pupils and families with EAL is often good practice for all pupils and families,” he said.

“If pupils come in to school with little or no English, we do teach them separately for a small amount of the English curriculum in order to support their phonics and grammar development.

“And our English-speaking pupils are benefiting from having children from different backgrounds, languages and cultures around them – as are pupils with EAL.

“It gives them a ‘world view’ in an increasingly global society; preparing them for an international future.

“They (EAL students) find communication a challenge at times, but they are adept at working out non-verbal means to communicate, such as hand signals and visuals, but many of our children are developing language anyway.”

He added: “Once teachers think of the best strategy to meet pupils’ needs they find it becomes part of their best practice.

“For example, children with EAL often benefit from the use of visual resources to support their understanding. However, this often benefits all learners.”

Families of EAL students are given a tour of the school in Belstead Avenue. Polish, Spanish and Romanian translators accompany them.

“With this support, children often settle quickly,” he added.

But he said Brexit could affect pupil numbers: “This will have a negative effect on our school budget if we cannot fill the places from pupils remaining in the country.”