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  • Writer's pictureAllen Olayomi

The impact of the pandemic on EAL pupils

The world has - thankfully - reached some semblance of normality since the early days of total lockdown, yet the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are still widely felt, especially by disadvantaged and marginalised communities.

Children with English as an additional language (EAL) were not exempt from the pandemic’s wide-reaching impact. In England, Covid has noticeably disrupted the progress of EAL learners, with many falling behind on their English proficiency during the lockdowns and school closures in 2020 and 2021.

Due to lockdown measures enforced in the Spring and Autumn of 2020 and the first few months of 2021, schools were closed, and pupils lost roughly six months of valuable classroom/direct learning time.

While a few parents were capable of giving educational support in their native language, many EAL students' access to the curriculum and home learning was constrained. This was down to a lack of academic English modelling in a classroom setting and limited opportunities to practice their speaking through interactions with adults and peers.

Absence from the school also widened the attainment gap and affected EAL pupils’ ability to relate to their peers leading to social isolation.

Who are EAL pupils?

The Department for Education (DfE) records show that nearly 1.6 million students were speaking about 350 languages and using EAL in 2021. This number accounts for 19% of the entire school population.

EAL learners are a diverse group that represents the entire spectrum of English Language proficiency, from beginners to fluent speakers. An advanced multilingual pupil from a high-income household, for example, as well as a refugee with no prior schooling living in a disadvantaged region, could both be part of the EAL group.

The size of the EAL population, and the potential for growth it has shown over the years, underlines the need for targeted EAL policy development and a detailed plan of how they can be supported.

How did the lockdown affect EAL pupils?

During the school closure period, there was a shortage of targeted intervention for students in the early phases of English proficiency. Pupils also had to navigate the complex feeling of being cut off from their peers despite spending more time with their families.

According to a June 2021 Bell Foundation report, school closures during the coronavirus pandemic had a significant adverse impact on learning for EAL learners. This impact was evident in all language skills - speaking, listening, reading and writing. Over two-thirds of teachers surveyed reported a negative impact on the English language skills of children who have EAL following the disruption to education caused by Covid-19.

Another report by Lambeth Council from February 2022 gathered survey stats from parents and pupils which concluded that:

  • only 25% of parents communicated primarily with English at home, with 84% using their home language;

  • over 87% of parents believed their children needed assistance with schoolwork sent home during the lockdown;

  • only 36% of parents indicated that they could assist their children with schoolwork, with the majority (35%) only able to help occasionally and (29%) never.

  • almost half of the pupils (about 49%) claimed that school was harder after returning.

These findings suggest that due to language, academic and financial challenges, many families found it tough supporting their children despite available remote learning resources.

What are the next steps?

The current situation demands well-targeted catch-up programmes that account for both English language learning loss and general learning loss for students. The nationwide recovery and catch-up programme should include EAL learners who aren't fluent in English, in addition to disadvantaged students. Restoring English proficiency lost due to absence from school is critical to raising EAL students' achievement.

Tutoring is one of the best ways to boost children's learning disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic and decrease the educational attainment gap. However, the government-funded National Tuition Programme is failing to reach the most marginalised children and doesn’t provide the bespoke support required by young people with EAL.

Our lifeblood here at Jacari is finding creative and effective ways to reach each EAL learner's unique needs and give them the tools they need to cope. During school lockdowns, our volunteer tutors have provided invaluable assistance to students with EAL, via regular video sessions allowing them to practise their English language skills and gain confidence.

We helped our students stay on track with schoolwork and remote learning resources, while also providing mentorship to help them work through challenges. During a time when children are becoming more excluded, this feature of Jacari's functions has been critical.

We are continuing to support over 150 children in Bristol and Oxford to grow their confidence and language skills. We returned to face-to-face tutoring in September 2021 and this has further helped to support young people to recover from the disruption of the Covid pandemic.

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