Teachers’ leaders said it was becoming ‘a struggle’ to cater for the needs of this rapidly growing group of children in a system that has been ‘bled dry’ by budget cuts.
A new report from the Department for Education shows there are now 15,220 so-called ‘newcomers’ in 2017–18 compared to 9,747 five years ago. But earlier figures show that in 2006–7 there were just 3,911 newcomer pupils in Northern Irish schools – indicating a nearly fourfold increase in the past twelve years.
Pupils currently speak approximately 90 different languages, with Polish and Lithuanian being the most common behind English.
A total of 4.4 per cent of the whole school population in Northern Irish institutions are newcomers, defined as pupils who ‘do not have English or Irish as their first language and do not have satisfactory language skills to participate fully in the school curriculum’.
The growth in enrolment in Northern Ireland is mainly seen in primary schools, where an 8.7 per cent increase has been recorded over the last five years.
Even though figures have stayed almost the same in secondary education during the same period of time, children who arrive as teenagers suffer most from being non-native English speakers. They may end up sitting their final exams before having fully developed the language comprehension skills needed to perform to the best of their abilities.
While Northern Ireland is experiencing an unprecedented number of young EAL pupils, England is used to multicultural classes in the world of compulsory education.
Out of the 8.67 million 5-to-18-year-old pupils in all schools in England, more than a million speak in excess of 360 languages between them, census data released in 2016 show.
The Department for Education in Northern Ireland is currently reviewing its newcomer policy – adopted in 2009 – in order to develop the capacity of schools to adapt to new circumstances.
The aim is to tackle current challenges that newcomer pupils face when the language of instruction presents a barrier to learning for them. Schools with newcomer pupils also receive additional funding of around £1,000 per child.
Avril Hall Callaghan, general secretary of the Ulster Teachers’ Union, said the ‘challenge is huge’ to give migrant pupils the education they deserve in the face of a system that has been ‘bled dry’ of funding.
‘These children and families have so much to offer Northern Ireland,’ she added in a statement.