Language Learning Gap: Less Than 1% of English Schools Equipped with Comprehensive Policies


Challenges Mount as the Majority of Institutions Lack Comprehensive Guidelines for Second Languages and English Learning

A mere three out of every 500 schools in England, representing less than 1%, possess holistic policies addressing foreign languages, English language proficiency, and the integration of students with English as an additional language (EAL), according to recent findings published in the British Educational Research Journal.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the study scrutinized nearly 1,000 secondary schools, challenging the inclusivity claims of many institutions and signaling a potential deprioritization of language learning.

With approximately 20% of students in England classified as EAL, the study sheds light on the challenges schools face in managing linguistic diversity. Despite the multicultural landscape of English schools, the research found only six schools out of the 998 examined had dedicated, school-wide language policies. Remarkably, more schools had policies on asbestos management or rules about dogs on school grounds.

While specific language-related policies were present in most schools, they were often isolated, unclear, and inconsistent, particularly concerning critical issues such as supporting EAL learners and the status of community languages. Astonishingly, 37% of schools failed to mention English, other languages, or the term “language” in any public policy document.

The absence of comprehensive language strategies raises concerns for the 1.7 million EAL students in England, as only 6% of state schools and 15% of all schools had explicit EAL policies. The study uncovered anecdotal evidence of disjointed experiences for some EAL students, highlighting the urgent need for coherent language education approaches.

Karen Forbes, Associate Professor in Second Language Education at the University of Cambridge, expressed surprise at the lack of systematic language policies in schools. Forbes emphasized the fundamental role language plays in students’ learning processes and called the absence of clear policies “very worrying,” especially for EAL students.

Despite a significant EAL student population in some schools, language policies were often superficial or categorized EAL as a “special educational need,” contrary to government guidelines. Some policies even extended beyond the classroom, with certain schools expecting parents to enforce “standard English” at home, posing challenges for non-English-speaking parents.

The study also raised concerns about the encouragement of language learning within the curriculum. While the government advocates language study through the English Baccalaureate, only about 65% of independent schools regarded language study to GCSE as compulsory, compared to just a quarter of state schools.

The authors argue for a localized approach to language policy within schools, tailored to the linguistic context of local communities. They hope this study will pave the way for a larger project, leading to the development of a toolkit for schools to create comprehensive language policies, fostering a more inclusive and supportive educational environment.

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