When EAL meets MFL

by Michael Evans

In a recent speech the Ofsted Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, commented that, because of having to take the ‘full brunt of economic dislocation in recent years’, ‘white working class communities’ in England lacked ‘the aspiration and drive seen in many migrant communities’ (1).  This attitudinal difference was seen as a key factor in differences in school performance data and parental engagement in their children’s education. The former head of Ofsted, Michael Wilmshaw, has also said that the reason schools in London are performing better than schools in other areas is that, among other factors, ‘immigrant families care about education’ (2).  Earlier this year DfE figures indicated that children with EAL were beginning to outperform English L1 pupils in most GCSE exam scores (3).

While the Ofsted comments, and in particular their call for greater economic investment in disadvantaged, predominantly white working-class regions in England, are laudable and to be encouraged, there is, unfortunately, always the potential, in the era of Brexit-England and Trump-America, that this kind of unfavourable comparison between underperforming nationals and higher performing migrants can unleash a backlash of resentment and jealousies. In any case, to some extent the comparison is unfair. Migrants are for the most part defined by a drive for self-improvement, else they would not have the determination and resilience to uproot (dis-locate) and re-settle in a new land, especially one which speaks an unfamiliar language. The Ofsted comments, and similar well-meaning pronouncements, then, might be leading us down the wrong path in terms of raising achievement for all.

Is there another, more positive, take on the value of diversity and multilingualism in our schools?

Perhaps instead of exclusively scrutinising and interpreting school statistics relating to the educational achievement of different categories of students, we should look at ways of promoting and celebrating how this diversity can generate productive learning and intercultural understanding.

Several years ago, predating the Brexit referendum and the mass refugee crisis in Europe, Linda Fisher and I carried out a national study of policy and practice of MFL in schools in England, which involved in-depth case studies of schools through interviews and observations. Our report drew the following conclusions on the potential link between foreign language learning and multilingual classrooms:

  • In schools where there was a substantial number of EAL pupils at the school, the languages staff believed that their presence contributed to the raising of the status of languages as a whole in the school (‘the other pupils respect it, see it as a strength’). There were different ways in which this was perceived. 
  •  EAL pupils were role models for the other pupils in that they demonstrated how it is possible to learn a second language fairly quickly, going from practically no knowledge at all to a good level of fluency, by living in the country.
  •  EAL pupils' presence in the classroom allowed for meaningful and personalized discussion of diversity of languages and stimulated reflection around language awareness issues.
  •  EAL pupils' presence gave rise to greater intercultural awareness of all pupils.
  •  By being much less reliant on English in languages lessons, teachers felt EAL pupils were able to contribute to target language use as a means of communication in the classroom. (4)

At one school, a focus group interview of Y8 pupils revealed that pupils had spontaneously seen learning a foreign language as a way of communicating (linguistically and interpersonally) with a Hungarian newcomer pupil with English as an additional language.

  •  G:      If we learnt Hungarian it would be easy for him. He came from a different country and he doesn’t know any English and we can’t talk to him or communicate because we don’t know the language. If he was French, then it would be easier.
  •  B:      It would be easier but we’d be able like to get a translator in school because a lot of folk, when I wanted to, tried to look after him. He wanted someone else because he couldn’t really understand, so I said to one of the teachers why don’t they get a translator but they didn’t want to because he’s kind of nearly got his English right.
  •  G:      We’ve learnt a bit of Hungarian just so that we can communicate with him.

Unfortunately, beyond the confines of certain supportive and inclusive schools, the mutual benefit of the synergy between EAL and MFL remains underexplored and the sociocultural gap remains unbridged. Politicians, educators and the public continue to look out for solutions in different directions, without connection.



1. Spielman, A. Speech at the Wellington Festival of Education, 21 June 2018.

2. Adams, R. ‘Ofsted chief: families of white working-class children “lack drive” of migrants’, The Guardian, 22 June 2018.

3. Department for Education. (2018) Revised GCSE and equivalent results in England, 2016 to 2017. SFR01/2018

4.  Evans, M. and Fisher, L. (2009) Language Learning at Key Stage 3. Final report.  (DCSF), p.80.

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