Leading EAL in your primary school

Written by: Catherine Brennan | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

EAL support is a core responsibility for every school. Catherine Brennan considers the key roles and duties for those leading EAL within primary schools and offers some tips on how to embed sustainable EAL provision within schools and support your teaching staff

While the number pupils who use English as an additional language (EAL) continues to rise (DfE, 2018), the availability of specialist EAL expertise in schools is decreasing. This can be attributed to a variety of factors including the reduction or loss of funding for central EAL support within local authorities (Hutchinson, 2018) following the removal of ringfenced funding and the overall pressure on schools’ budgets (Perera et al, 2017).

An important challenge for school leaders is to build long-term sustainable capacity and appropriate provision for EAL pupils who now form 21.2 per cent of the state primary school population within the context of fewer resources to support this work. Although headline figures published by the Department for Education (DfE, 2016) show that, on average, in 2016 EAL pupils performed well, research suggests that the heterogeneity of the EAL group makes overall average attainment figures for the EAL group profoundly misleading (Hutchinson, 2018).

Understanding the variability of this group and identifying key factors that may impact on attainment, such as proficiency in English, first language and arrival time in the UK, can help school leaders plan appropriate and targeted support.

This article looks at how the right school leadership is key to enhancing the outcomes for EAL learners and to ensuring that these pupils are positively regarded and appropriately supported by all school practitioners. I will look at the key roles and responsibilities for those leading EAL within the school and provide practical guidance on how to embed sustainable EAL provision.

Understanding existing provision for EAL learners

An important first step is understanding key areas of strength and areas for development within existing provision for pupils across the language proficiency range – from New to English to Fluent. One way of gaining this understanding is for leadership teams to undertake a self-assessment of the existing mechanisms of support.

The Bell Foundation’s EAL Nexus has produced a primary EAL self-assessment/evaluation tool, the completion and implementation of which can be helpful in identifying future priorities and adequately planning whole-school policy, strategies and interventions (see further information). A useful starting point for leaders is Section A, which focuses on leadership and management and examines existing leadership structures through questions such as:

  • Is there a named governor who leads on EAL?
  • How does the governing body support and challenge the school with regard to its EAL provision?
  • Is there a named member of the senior leadership team with overall responsibility/accountability for EAL provision in the school?
  • Does the school have an EAL strategy or action plan in place?

Other sections to explore in the self-assessment tool for EAL include resourcing and funding (Section B), CPD (Section C), pupil induction, assessment, placement and monitoring of progress (Section D), and teaching, learning and the curriculum (Section E).

Considering the evidence drawn out through the EAL self-assessment can help guide schools in writing a practical whole-school EAL action plan, within which, clear roles, responsibilities and timescales can be agreed by senior leadership and closely linked to the school development plan.

Leading on EAL: Establishing priorities

When deciding who is best placed to take on the role of EAL lead, it can be helpful to reflect on the priorities identified in the EAL action plan and consider the following factors:

  • Leadership capacity – who has the time, interest, knowledge and authority (or potential) to develop and lead training?
  • Strategic priorities – what are the key priorities for the school regarding EAL? What resource is available? How and where should this resource be used to have the most impact?
  • Day-to-day responsibilities – e.g. if most of the school’s EAL pupils are “New to English”, then establishing their prior knowledge and educational experience as well as assessing their English language proficiency may be a large part of the EAL leader’s role. However, if most of your EAL pupils are advanced bilingual learners, the role may be more about coaching teachers to effectively plan lessons.

Leading on EAL: Roles and responsibilities

It is important to consider that language-rich teaching benefits all pupils. Being able to speak clearly, express ideas, understand and interact with others are key building blocks for every child’s development. Speech and language skills underpin many other areas of development for all learners e.g. providing a strong foundation for learning, such as reading and writing and enabling access to the whole curriculum.

“Language-rich teaching” can be achieved by using whole-school, cross-curricular approaches that are clearly communicated to all staff and actively promoted by senior leaders. In starting to establish effective EAL practices across the school, it can be useful to identify specific actions for phase, subject and pastoral leads (see the table below for examples).

Action plan: When establishing effective EAL practices across the school it is recommended that you identify specific actions for phase, subject and pastoral leads, as in this example



For schools with significant numbers of EAL learners, the following policies are key to guide practice:

  • A Languages Policy: Can be used to make an important statement about the kind of school you aspire to be – welcoming, inclusive, supportive, multilingual, diverse, or indeed all of the above. By actively involving staff and pupils in the design of the policy and by implementing it from classroom to canteen, key messages will start to resonate around the school and to have a meaningful impact on teaching and learning. Guidance on developing a languages or EAL policy is available on the EAL Nexus website.
  • New Arrivals Induction and Assessment Policy: Useful in clarifying staff roles and responsibilities for welcoming and carrying out initial assessments of new EAL pupils admitted to school mid-term. Further guidance on how to assess English language proficiency can be found via The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework and on the EAL Nexus website. Guidance on welcoming new arrivals is available from Bracknell Forest Council’s “EAL and Diversity Website”.

Lessons from recent research

There is now an increasing body of research around EAL that leaders can use to help guide decision-making and underpin school strategies. As the demographics of EAL learners can vary considerably by school, school type and local area, it is also important that school leaders stay abreast of local and regional data to inform their decisions. A good example of useful research is Strand and Hessel (2018). This revealed that:

  • EAL is a poor indicator of pupils’ likely level of educational achievement. It is their proficiency in English that is central to understanding achievement and levels of support needed.
  • Although English language support is most needed in the early years and key stage 1, there is sometimes a need for support at later ages.
  • Being bilingual can have positive associations with achievement as pupils rated “Competent” or “Fluent in English” typically have higher educational achievement than monolingual peers. However, pupils who are “New to English”, “Early acquisition” or “Developing competence” will need support to acquire the proficiency in English they need to develop to their full potential.

In terms of informing best practice and establishing key priorities, Strand and Hessell (2018) signal a need for school leaders to consider:

  • Assessing proficiency in English language and developing tailored support when a pupil first arrives in school to enable them to access and achieve through the curriculum.
  • Recording progress in proficiency in English of all EAL pupils and using this data to identify need and target appropriate support.
  • Training school staff in the consistent use of The Bell Foundation’s EAL Assessment Framework and associated support strategies, which include primary descriptors and EYFS guiding principles.
  • Ensuring all staff are aware of the important association between bilingualism and achievement and are equipped to provide the necessary support for all learners.

Personal development, behaviour and welfare

Language cannot be separated from identity; it is important that the first language of every child is acknowledged and valued in schools. Strong leadership which motivates primary school staff to value multilingualism as a celebrated asset in school can have a positive impact on relationships with children and families. It is important that this positive multilingual ethos is captured in an EAL or languages policy.

Approximately three quarters of the British public favour reduced levels of immigration, this according to The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford (figures from 2016). This research, coupled with the statutory obligation under the Equality Act (2010) to promote equality of opportunity for pupils whatever their race, religion or belief (among other protected characteristics), reinforces a duty for those leading on EAL within schools to tackle any negative mindsets or attitudes towards EAL learners that may be held by staff, parents and the wider community.

This includes those views that may affect how EAL pupils view themselves, how their class-mates view them and how the school as a whole understands inclusion. Practical ideas could include:

  • Providing inductions for new staff around whole-school policies, systems and strategies aimed at supporting EAL learners within diverse multilingual classrooms.
  • Actively involving staff and pupils in the design of an EAL policy and communicating its importance to all.
  • Providing examples of practical resources to use in class which value multilingualism – for example, see Newbury Park’s “Language of the Month” (see further information) or OUP’s “Language ID cards”.
  • Developing multilingual strategies for learning (e.g. bilingual home-school vocabulary books).
  • Engaging the parents and carers of EAL learners in school life, e.g. producing multilingual displays together or projects such as the “Carry my Story Project” (see further information).

Where can EAL expertise and resources be accessed?

A key role for leaders is to help staff with CPD, and one way to do this is to signpost the many EAL resources available online. For school leaders, the EAL Nexus website provides advice and a range of free resources for the classroom. Alongside this, The Bell Foundation’s EAL Programme offers a variety of training options and resources. The Collaborative Learning Project website also has much to offer.

  • Catherine Brennan is an EAL Trainer for The Bell Foundation, which is a charity working to overcome exclusion through language education.

Further information & resources


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