gcse students
It is a unique occurrence in the developed world. Source: Shutterstock.

In 2017, GCSE pupils who do not speak English as a first language outperformed their native speaking classmates for the first time ever in the developed world.

The children with English as an additional language (EAL) soared above their peers in all Department for Education measures, said a report on Times Educational Supplement.

The term EAL is given to all students who do not have English as a first language, including fluent speakers whose parents use a different language at home.

Executive Director of Teach First Sam Freedman described the results as “startling” in the article for TES.

“The standard explanation […] is that immigrant groups are more aspirational than native Brits,” he wrote. “We have decades of sociological research showing that immigrant families are often highly driven.”

Freedman, who was also a Policy Adviser to former Education Secretary Michael Gove, accepted that while possible, the explanation is rather reductive.

Until now, native speakers have always performed better in their GCSEs than EAL students

So what has changed?

Freedman claimed the geography of the results certainly plays a part.

It is telling that the result is unique to the UK. Children in other countries who undertake exams in a language other than their mother tongue tend to perform worse than their contemporaries.

Approximately 40 percent of the UK’s EAL students are educated in London. Overall attainment for EAL students in the capital city’s schools is much higher than the average across the UK. This is attributed to better funding and more teachers as well as the “proximity” of immigrant groups, making “mutual support easier”.

University of Bristol Professor Simon Burgess argued most of London’s good exam results are due to the growing population of immigrants.

In every region in the UK apart from Yorkshire and the Humber, EAL students are obtaining higher marks than their peers.

The few areas where EAL pupils are less successful are places in which community integration is poor. Failed attempts to improve the situation by the local government are perhaps showing themselves through these results.

It is doubtful the EAL students in these areas are less aspirational than those from other regions or even that their community has weaker bonds. Instead, it is likely the issue is rooted in poor communication between communities and the schools their children attend.

“I suspect that the answer lies in the interactions between families, schools and communities,” Freedman said.

If schools work to “change attitudes and build trust”, EAL students are able to thrive.

The results highlight “the absurdity of the xenophobic commentary in our politics and media,” Freedman wrote.

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