A school in a city which came to embody the UK’s immigration debate hopes to boost standards with a major shake-up of how EAL pupils are educated, Irena Barker writes
During the EU referendum, the city of Peterborough became a byword for the Brexit debate.
A convenient 45-minute train ride from London, journalists vox-popped its citizens to ask them their views on its recent influx of migrant workers from Europe.
The picture that emerged was mixed: migrants were welcomed by employers in the surrounding farms and factories, but some inhabitants felt threatened by the increasing number of ‘foreigners’ entering the job market.
One thing is certain: the influx of migrants since the expansion of the EU in 2004 left some secondary schools in the Cambridgeshire city with a large number of pupils arriving in the middle of their schooling with little or no English at all.
One such school was the Voyager Academy, which re-opened in September as the Queen Katherine Academy. Located in one of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods, in recent years it has found itself at the forefront of receiving children who have recently arrived in the area.
A damning inspection report in 2013, which criticised behaviour at the school, meant it became less popular with parents, so it soon became one of the only schools in the city with space for new arrivals. Local press headlines about poor exam results did not help matters.
Now, a total of 61 per cent of pupils are ‘declared’ English as an additional language (EAL) learners and 39 languages other than English are spoken in the school, with Lithuanian, Portuguese, Slovakian, Polish and Latvian making the top five.
The school says 44 per cent of the school population is EAL to the extent that it will seriously impede their academic progress elsewhere. The school has also taken on a significant proportion of Roma pupils, who can be behind educationally as well as linguistically.
Clearly, addressing the needs of this large body of learners had to be one of the keys to the school’s overall improvement efforts, which continue apace following recent praise from inspectors. But a little tweaking around the edges was not going to be enough – something ‘radical’ was needed, assistant principal and head of languages Jane Driver explains. So, late last year, the school set about transforming its approach. It had no extra money, only its wits and its existing staff.
A system of immersing EAL learners in mainstream classes – the general status quo in English schools – was out of the question, says Driver, a modern foreign languages specialist who started her career in Tefl after leaving the army. ‘We had tried immersion, and immersion wasn’t working for us, and we decided we were going to do something more radical,’ she says, explaining that this model only really works in primaries or when the vast majority of pupils are English native speakers.
Teachers were leaving because of the strain of differentiating lessons for pupils of such varying degrees of ability and English, she explains. The task, she adds, was ‘impossible’.
There also appeared to be a link with EAL students unable to access the curriculum properly and bad behaviour.
Efforts by the special needs department to support EAL students alongside their normal lessons were ‘not structured enough’, she says, and relied too much on reading ages, which she believes are an ‘unreliable indicator’ of ability in academic English.
Students were also lacking motivation, as being taken out of lessons for a number of weeks was fragmenting their learning. It was not always easy for staff to know whether students could cope with their mainstream lessons.
Driver says: ‘With EAL, students learn “survival English” really quickly – and that masks their real level of language.
‘Sometimes staff see that the child says a lot but they don’t analyse the quality of what they say. They are kind of blinded a bit by the volume and the amount of language produced, but that doesn’t transfer itself to the written word.’ All these concerns led to the school launching its full ‘support curriculum’ for EALs – led by Driver. Under the system, all EAL pupils in Years 7, 8 and 9 who need help with English follow a dual curriculum – which amounts to 29 per cent of all pupils in Years 7 to 9. For half of the time – fifteen periods a week – they are in mainstream classes and study maths, science, performing arts, PE, design technology and art. But for the other half, they attend classes focusing on English language, reading and basic IT. While they move around the school for mainstream classes, their support curriculum work is taught by just one or two teachers in a single classroom with a support worker.
‘We wanted to take some of that primary pedagogy. Teachers in primary classrooms know their students inside out, and their depth of knowledge of those students’ needs is completely different to secondary where you see your students for fifty minutes a week,’ says Driver. This in-depth knowledge would allow teachers to know exactly when pupils are ready to enter the full mainstream curriculum, she says. But it was key that students did not feel that spending a significant proportion of their time in ‘primary style’ classes was remedial or babyish. The school has addressed this by ensuring pupils use resources intended for young people and adults – including EFL textbooks and graded readers.
Once teachers are confident that pupils are ready to move into the mainstream, they make sure students are supported as they transition. The first small wave of graduates from the scheme was expected to transfer in November.
But what of pupils who arrive at the school in later years, such as in the crucial exam years at age 15/16? Driver says the system is more ‘bespoke’ and centres around helping pupils pass must-have subjects.
Students go to at least their four core GCSE (national exam) subjects of English, maths, science and PE, and then can take up to four ‘support options’ depending on their needs.
EAL students are encouraged to study for modern foreign language GCSEs if they can find one they are likely to pass. Many Portugese-speaking students take Spanish, for example, and some Romanians take Italian.
The focus on English and maths though, is vital, says Driver. Schools in the UK are judged on their headline figures of pupils passing these subjects at age sixteen, and can be taken over or closed down if they are deemed to be underperforming.
The excuse that a school has a very mobile population or a high number of EALs is not generally accepted by inspectors, who expect the school to be doing well with pupils from all backgrounds.
Recent reforms to GCSE exams have also made good-quality, accurate English use to be more important across the subject range.
‘With league tables, too, there’s no hiding – your results as a school are very, very public,’ Driver says. This transformation of the school has relied on the good will and enthusiasm of its staff. The school only has one Delta-qualified teacher and no extra funding, so twelve subject teachers had to be ‘repurposed’ for part of their timetables to teach the support curriculum. Many volunteered to do it because they could see that the school needed to change its approach.
It’s a massive learning curve for everybody,’ says Driver. ‘These are teachers who have just come from different subjects, so we’ve got dance teachers, PE teachers, music teachers, health and social care, PSHE teachers.
‘We’ve got a real mix of staff who are now having to redevelop their skills with a completely different focus. A couple of teachers have found it more difficult than others.’ The teachers underwent training during the summer looking at approaches such as phonics. They also went into primary schools to look at how teachers work in tandem with their teaching assistants.
Funding from Erasmus Plus will also allow a group of staff to visit schools in Europe to gain an understanding of the educational background of some of their students.
In Slovakia, for example, teachers will visit the special schools where Roma pupils are educated. In Poland, teachers hope to gain an understanding of the school system and the expectations parents might have of a school.
‘We will gain a better understanding of where the students are coming from,’ says Driver. For headteacher Scott Hudson, the support curriculum is a vital part of overall school improvement. But he is keen to stress that his aim is to ensure the school helps all pupils with ‘significant linguistic and literacy barriers’, both EAL and native English speakers.
Hudson says, ‘Whilst it is very early days, we are seeing real benefits in engagement and behaviours for learning, which are resulting in better progress.’