Get your international pupils off to a good start

Dr Helen Wood, head of school partnerships at Password Testing, highlights the importance of an accurate English language assessment to ensure a good fit between international pupil and school

I was interested, lately, to come across an English as an Additional Language (EAL) questions checklist provided by UK Boarding Schools for parents of international pupils joining independent schools in the UK. There was some sensible advice to find out if EAL lessons are included in fees, whether the teachers are qualified in English language teaching, the school’s policy for integrating new international pupils and finally – my current area of interest – what entry tests are required and whether these are adapted for overseas students.

What struck me most was this was a fairly recent post, dating from November 2018. Surely, you would think, since some 60+ independent school brands are already well-established overseas and more than 80% of their pupil body are local children rather than expatriates, the vast majority of international parents must now know what they are getting when their child moves to a school in the UK? And, having been to an English medium international school, their son or daughter won’t need much in the way of EAL lessons anyway, will they? 

Given the burgeoning numbers of such overseas pupils in our classrooms, you would hope such assumptions are true – but a timely critique of the provision for English language learners attending international schools by Maurice Carder et al. suggests not. Carder, the former head of ESL and mother tongue education at the Vienna International School with over 30 years in the job, is well placed to provide us with his brutally honest picture of reality.

The test means schools can get their overseas pupils off to a positive beginning by accurately assessing their language level and ensuring a good ‘fit’ between the student’s EAL needs and the school’s offering

The leadership in many international schools, he argues, unwittingly or deliberately, treat English language learners within their pupil cohorts as a ‘problem’. They disregard the crucial role that language plays in allowing students to fully access the curriculum, fail to properly staff EAL departments with qualified, experienced professionals, rely on peripheral ‘support’ models of EAL borrowed from deficient national policies whilst simultaneously enticing international parents with the unrealistic notion that being taught by native English-speaking teachers will lead to their son or daughter becoming fluent. 

While Carder’s book reviews the EAL landscape within the international school sector, we would do well to reflect on what this means for our own admissions systems. If he is right, then the final question on the UK Boarding Schools’ website regarding the types of entry tests our schools use and whether these are appropriate for overseas pupils becomes particularly pertinent. 

Even more so when reviewed in the light of a report recently published by the Education Policy Institute. Its author, Jo Hutchinson, found that, in the state sector, inappropriate baseline academic assessments were consistently underestimating the potential academic attainment of EAL pupils to an ‘unmeasured degree’. These very same test types, described by Hutchinson as producing ‘misleading data’, are widely used by the independent school sector with its own overseas prospective pupils. It is also common currency to rely on tests designed for assessing performance against the mainstream English curriculum, which, according to both NALDIC (the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum) and the DfE is an ‘ill-advised’ practice with respect to EAL learners. 

So, does an appropriate test exist for EAL learners joining schools in the UK? 

The answer, in my view, is a categorical ‘yes’. The Password Knowledge and Writing test content is concerned with language used in the academic social context and responds to the need for a quick, inexpensive but accurate indication of a learner’s level of English either prior to enrolment or at the point of joining an academic institution. Designed by CRELLA, a world-leading research centre in English language learning and assessment, and originally produced for use by universities and colleges, it has subsequently been adapted for schools, with assistance from BAISIS members.

The test means schools can get their overseas pupils off to a positive beginning by accurately assessing their language level and ensuring a good ‘fit’ between the student’s EAL needs and the school’s offering. Carder’s work might raise questions around our own international strategies and EAL provision but finding ways to better evaluate the gap between a student’s level of language development and the linguistic demands of the curriculum is a very good place to start tackling these.

Dr Helen Wood

Dr Helen Wood is head of school partnerships at Password Testing, having been head of the international section at d’Overbroeck’s School in Oxford for 10 years and their whole-school head of EAL for 18 years. She is a former deputy chair of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students and was a member of the Accreditation Scheme Advisory Committee of the British Council.