Can schools cope with migrant children?

In yet another xenophobic article from the Daily Express, this country’s children are portrayed as being under threat by an influx of migrant children.

Jill Rutter works for a charity supporting refugees and migrants, is an associate fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), and author of “Refugee Children in the UK” (Open University Press, 2006)

In yet another xenophobic article from the Daily Express, this country’s children are portrayed as being under threat by an influx of migrant children. Using data obtained from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), the Express suggests that in a growing number of schools, English-speaking pupils are now in a minority.

The article states that in 2009 some 1,547 English schools had a majority of children who spoke a “foreign language other than English”. This statistic was cited as further evidence of the “splintering of society” caused by international migration. Predictably, the article misinterprets the statistics. It also gives no mention of important debates about migrant children’s schooling.

The English language statistics are drawn from the National Pupil Database, which holds a range of data about every child in English state schools. The data shows that just over 13 per cent of England’s school population speak a language other than English at home.

Yes, there are more bilingual pupils in state schools than ten years ago and, as the Express states, there are more schools where monolingual, English-speaking children are in a minority. A similar analysis undertaken in the independent sector would show similar trends, with growing numbers of bilingual pupils in these schools.

But bilingual pupils are a very diverse group. A minority are migrants and they are not the universally challenging group of pupils that teachers struggle to educate. Their levels of fluency in English are varied, some are new to the English language, while others have grown up in homes where English is spoken. Many bilingual pupils are fully fluent in both spoken and written English. Their ethnic origins are diverse.

Among children new to the UK, some will have learned English, some will have had no exposure to the English language and a minority, often from war-torn regions, may have had little or no prior education. As with monolingual children, some bilingual children do well at school and some struggle.

The diverse background of bilingual children requires that funding for English language learning gets to those pupils who need extra support learning English and is not allocated to schools where bilingual pupils are already fluent in English. Regrettably, this is not the case and proposals to change the school funding in England are unlikely to improve this unjust division of resources.

In England, funding to help children acquire English presently comes from the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant, administered by DCSF. This grant has its origins that date back to the 1960s when it was mostly used to fund English teaching to new migrants from the UK’s former colonies.

The Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant (EMAG) has been subject to much criticism over the years, from teachers and organisations working with minority ethnic and migrant communities. EMAG is a three-year funding settlement and there is no contingency element in the grant.

Yet the movement of international migrants to particular areas is usually sudden and unforeseen and schools can be left out of pocket if they employ additional staff to teach English to newly-arrived children. Local authorities that receive the grant are also obliged to give 85 per cent of the money directly to schools. This makes it more difficult to shift money around schools, to meet the needs of children who move around a lot.

The funding formula to allocate the grant is also a blunt instrument. At present, much of the EMAG grant is allocated on the basis of historical precedent. Northern local authorities that received migrants in the 1960s and 1970s still receive more EMAG monies per child than do rural shire counties who have only recently seen the arrival of migrant children in their schools.

Over the last five years, DCSF has moved towards allocating a greater proportion of EMAG through a more transparent funding formula. Today, the numbers of children who speak a language other than English influences the size of the grant, as does the number of children receiving free school meals within a given local authority. Children from long-settled communities who are bilingual and speak fluent English attract the same funding as new arrivals who speak no English and have received no prior education.

Additionally, a proportion of the grant is allocated for the numbers of children from ethnic groups who are judged to be under-performing at a national level. These groups are defined by the DCSF as children of black Caribbean, black African and mixed black and white origin, as well as those of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Roma origin. Children of Yemeni or Turkish origin who are under-achieving attract no funding because they are not defined as a nationally under-achieving group. Yet these two groups often come at the bottom of achievement tables. In a few local authorities children of Bangladeshi origin do much better than the average child, yet they still receive funding from EMAG.

Partly in response to continued media coverage about migrant children straining school resources, the government has proposed to abolish EMAG from 2011 and give all its monies directly to schools. While this would give schools the freedom to spend the money on children most in need of support, all the criticisms of EMAG remain. The proposed funding formula will still mean that needy children receive the same money as children fully fluent in the English language. We still won’t have the capacity to move money around fast to target children when they first arrive in the UK.

So what do we need? Perhaps we need a fund that categorises children according to their fluency in English and educational need. Those with the greatest need should be allocated the greatest money. Children whose English is fluent should not attract funding. Additionally, leaders within the educational sector need to engage with policy debates about educational funding to a greater extent. Above all, we need an informed debate about support for migrant children, and not one that is led by Migration Watch and its media supporters.

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