The important role of ESOL in international boarding schools

Sue Ryall, head of ESOL at Kilgraston School, looks at how learning English as a non-native speaker delivers many opportunities for both pupil and teacher

In boarding schools throughout the UK, young people from all over the world live, learn and laugh together as naturally as if they had all grown up on the same street, sharing a common language: English. Some of these pupils have come for an intensive, one-year UK school experience, others to complete their schooling before going directly onto a British university. 

According to the Boarding Schools’ Association, a ‘very high proportion’ of international pupils, who come to British boarding schools to finish their schooling, regularly continue their studies at British higher education institutions. This figure, despite many people’s expectations, is buoyant. 

So, what exactly is ESOL? A confusing number of similar but subtly different acronyms exist – some current, some obsolete – and the boundaries between them are often only really understood by subject specialists. 

The acronym ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) has evolved within the last decade as a more accurate reflection of the subject studied by learners whose first language is not English and which was previously known as EFL (English as a foreign language) in countries where English is not the dominant or official language.

English as a second language in a country such as the UK used to be known as ESL but this is already outdated. As many learners already speak more than one language away from the classroom, describing English as a second language was thought inaccurate. Consequently, a more suitable term was needed and the name ESOL was born.

To add to the confusion, further acronyms exist for more specialist areas. For example, preparation for students wishing to access UK universities (English for Academic Purposes: EAP) and studies in a specialist field, profession or topic (English for Special Purposes: ESP). Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) and English as a Medium of Instruction (EMI) have more recently joined the methodology discussion. Confusing!

Imagine an English-speaking teenager you know going to school in Spain, France or Germany after having French classes only two or three times a week and it is easy to see why this provision is crucial to the success and wellbeing of international students

Who is ESOL for?

International pupils arriving at British boarding schools usually join an ESOL programme after their language skills have been assessed, usually by formal written tests and frequently a Skype interview. Short-stay pupils, attending for a term or a year, usually aim to gain a recognised ESOL examination – Cambridge Preliminary and Cambridge First Certificate being the most popular – before returning home to continue their education in their own school.

Those who intend to complete school in the UK and go on to university will, alongside their A-levels, Advanced Highers or IB Diplomas, sit a recognised exam such as the Cambridge Advanced Certificate or IELTS in order to secure university entrance. Imagine an English-speaking teenager you know going to school in Spain, France or Germany after having French classes only two or three times a week and it is easy to see why this provision is crucial to the success and wellbeing of international students.

With only an occasional exception, all international students completing their schooling in the UK go on to continue their education at a British institution. According to the 2019 Independent Schools Council Census, there are 28,910 overseas pupils, equating to 5.4% of all pupils.

Most schools have recognised that there is much more to ESOL provision than a bit of one-to-one language support ‘as and when’ and have duly accorded it the status it deserves as a subject in its own right. ESOL programmes are flexible according to students’ needs and classes are delivered by qualified, specialist language teachers, experienced in working with an array of cultures. Many of whom, like the students they are teaching, have also crossed the Rubicon of living and learning in a different country from the one they call home. 

Explicit ESOL lessons can be either part of modern foreign languages and taught parallel to French, German and Spanish, or as an alternative to mainstream English, though this is by no means a diluted version of the mainstream English curriculum. Indeed, many English native speaker students are foxed by the discrete grammar rules and explicit questions of style and usage which ESOL students grapple with daily. Rather like an artist will learn how to use brushes, paints and canvases as a vehicle for creative expression, as well as understand and appreciate the creative output of others, so do ESOL students learn how to use the tools of English – grammar, vocabulary, style and pronunciation – to express themselves coherently and fluently.

Formal lessons occur between three and five times per week and will culminate in internal as well as public examinations, usually Cambridge or IELTS. Surgeries, clubs and clinics vary from school to school but there is usually a formal system in place, unique to each school, where pupils can access individual support, clarification or simply more time to consider the content matter they encounter in their mainstream subjects.

On an individual basis, ESOL provision serves as a lifeline to almost all the international students who come to the UK in that it serves as a bridge between existing subject knowledge and cultural identity, and the new knowledge, skills and awareness being acquired in English.

In addition to language provision, many ESOL departments offer further support to their international students via socio-cultural means which touches the whole school. One example of such support is to have, for example, a Chinese or Mexican national working as a student support worker with Chinese/Mexican pupils. Key work would involve pastoral responsibility for and regular contact with all the school’s Chinese/Mexican pupils.

International day festivals, events such as Chinese New Year, Diwali, Nowruz and Ramadan, are recognised and celebrated in many schools, as are themed meals which coincide with different countries’ national holidays. Some schools also offer cultural awareness CPD for staff where students teach the teachers via discussions and workshops. 

Better understanding

One teacher, quoted in an article by Pat Moores, director of UK Education Guide, said: “It is extraordinarily useful for staff to hear first-hand of the challenges for some students – for example to hear how daunting it can be speaking up in class (especially in a second language) for the first time and of being asked to evaluate ideas and challenge their own understanding.” 

Such provisions as these are not luxuries but are as crucial to the wellbeing and success of Britain’s independent school international students as to the success of the schools themselves; helping to foster long-term links with partner schools and agents in other countries and contributing to the audibility of their voices at tomorrow’s table. 

International students with a British independent school education are twice as likely to be accepted at a British university than applicants who have studied elsewhere simply because they are already familiar with the culture

One sixth form college principal to whom Moores spoke said: “The use of English in the classroom and for academic purposes is actually enhanced rather than diluted, as there is a clear outlet for [the international students’] own language away from the academic zone.” 

In my recent conversation with Caroline Nixon, general secretary of the British Association of Independent Schools with International Students (BAISIS), she revealed that: “International students with a British independent school education are twice as likely to be accepted at a British university than applicants who have studied elsewhere simply because they are already familiar with the culture.” She added that international students bring a staggering £25.8bn of revenue to the UK each year (source: Universities UK).

The 2017 British Council study of bilingual schools in Madrid showed marked improvements in the language and general cognitive abilities of all pupils, including those with low socio-economic status, because of the complete bilingual approach to teaching.

This bilingual approach is culturally and economically vital, not only to the progress of UK independent schools but also in the quest to best equip all our students with the education and experience they need to fully embrace their future with confidence and understanding. 

The fact that independent schools have been offering CLIL to their international students for many years is beginning to reach the public consciousness, and both CLIL and EMI are finally gaining traction both as methodologies and as a way forward beyond the world of the independent school.