The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Diane Leedham

Ethical assessment and tracking for EAL learners

Diane Leedham argues why data should be the servant and not the master when it comes to championing the needs of EAL learners.

After months of uncertainty and behind the scenes speculation about the position for EAL and BAME learners in the 2018/19 school census return, the DfE finally released the 2018/19 census guidance as clarification at the end of June 2018.

No more nationality recording

Everybody should welcome the confirmation that schools are no longer required to return information about the country of birth and nationality of their pupils.

Despite later reassurances by the DfE that data sharing no longer occurred with the Home Office, this addition to the school census in 2016 and the ensuing media and activist furore risked compromising relationships with families and put schools in an invidious position. The negative impact on the national pupil database was not inconsiderable with thousands of EAL and BAME families not only choosing to refuse to give the new information, but also retracting personal information previously supplied.

No requirement for English proficiency code for EAL learners

However, the discovery that schools are also no longer required to submit an annual English proficiency code for their EAL learners came as an unwelcome shock. It’s a poor decision and one which will impact negatively on the national data for EAL and quite possibly student outcomes, since proficiency is the greatest risk factor for EAL learners.

If you abandon a practice which is in the best interests of your learners, just because the DfE is no longer interested, it risks positioning you as an uncritical DfE poodle

Without a record of EAL English proficiencies and how/whether these develop over time for different pupil groups in different contexts, national statistics like Progress 8 data do not reveal anything very much about how EAL learners are really faring in the school system. We are back to an EAL yes/no ascription on the national pupil database, with ongoing vulnerability to an aggregated halo effect on outcomes (as was seen in the coverage of the 2017 GSCE results, in which all EAL learners were reported as doing better than native speakers2).

When I was marking English Language GCSE this year, a wide range of EAL characteristics jumped off the page (for example vocabulary and idioms used incorrectly; struggles with basic agreements and structures in English). It would be impossible to evaluate the real progress of those candidates without a proficiency narrative quite separate to their curriculum journey.

NALDIC, the national subject association for EAL, develops these points further in its position statement, written in response to the new census guidance.

Response in schools

Of course, schools may not necessarily react in quite the same way. There are currently wide variations in terms of the professional knowledge base regarding EAL provision, staffing and capacity, both to capture accurate EAL data and offer EAL support.

At the time the decision to drop the data collection was announced in June 2018, almost two years after it was introduced, some schools had still not submitted any EAL proficiency data at all. It’s quite possible some schools will now heave a sigh of relief and abandon any attempt to carry out further EAL proficiency assessments, while others will remain in blissful ignorance that there was ever an issue.

Acting in the best interest of learners

I would urge all schools to continue EAL proficiency assessment and tracking as standard practice. Or if it’s not in place already, get started.

There is an ethical question at the heart of this as to what and who data capture is actually for. If you abandon or gloss over a practice which is in the best interests of your learners and your school community, just because the DfE is no longer interested, it risks positioning you as an uncritical DfE poodle.

There is always a tension between the desireable and the manageable. It may be that with the current sharp exigencies of funding, workload and recruitment, some school contexts feel they can only aim at ‘good enough’ EAL assessment and tracking.

I’m hopeful schools will avail themselves of the range of free professional guidance available and do rather better by our EAL learners, even if there are no EAL specialists in the school.

Start with the descriptors

The legacy DfE descriptors are not ideal for detailed planning and tracking purposes in relation to second language acquisition, but they are succinct and accessible.

A fine start for any school would be to have a dedicated slot to discuss those descriptors in relation to the individuals in your EAL cohort. This could be done in subject specialisms or class teams. Once a term is ideal; aim to update each individual EAL learner’s proficiency code at least once a year.

Over time portfolios could be created in your subject area for each proficiency code, using copies of existing classwork and records. This would also be a fantastic resource for teachers who are new to your school or new to the profession.

For more detail and links for further resources, see understanding and using the English proficiency codes for EAL learners.

Encourage professional dialogue

Productive professional conversations about successes, barriers and teaching and learning strategies for the range of EAL learners will naturally emerge from this approach. And if the generic nature of the legacy DfE descriptors doesn’t seem sufficient to support the developing proficiency of your learners, then there are more detailed EAL assessment frameworks available for free.

In addition, a professional subject association like NALDIC can link your school to local networks for advice and support, with more detailed guidance available via subscription and a membership journal.

Communication is key

Finally, looking outward from internal school procedures, it’s important to remember that it’s a worrying and confusing time for many EAL and BAME families. The ‘hostile climate’ as discussed in the media is often a source of great anxiety.

After two years of changes in school and government procedures and widespread press coverage, take a moment to communicate with your families and school community. Offer transparent and accessible information regarding this year’s census and your school’s rationale and protocols for confidential pupil profiles and EAL assessment and tracking.

Further reading and resources

EAL teaching: strategies to help your pupils succeed

Understanding and using the English proficiency codes for EAL learners

GDPR and your FAQs

EAL Nexus – resources from The Bell Foundation

English as an Additional Language, proficiency in English and pupils’ educational achievement: An analysis of Local Authority data 


  1. From presentation by Steve Strand at Lambeth Raising Achievement Conferences – see EAL 2017 keynote Steve Strand. 
  2. For an insightful commentary on this issue, see The attainment of EAL pupils in England – What the headlines don’t tell us


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