Some groups of migrant and refugee children, whose first language is not English, are making better progress in school than the Lancashire average, a council committee has heard.
Lancashire County Council’s head of school improvement, Stephen Belbin, told the education scrutiny committee that the support provided to pupils who are learning English is “good value for money”.
“We have seen standards for various groups improve. If you were to look at the achievement of Bangladeshi heritage pupils, [for instance], standards have risen above the Lancashire average,” Mr. Belbin said.
“My main concern is actually white British pupils, in terms of overall standards over time.
“Although there may be an issue initially [with non-English-speaking pupils] in a school, often those children are quite high aspirational and hardworking,” he added.
Mr. Belbin was responding to a question from one committee member about the pressure placed on schools when children are speaking a variety of languages and also the challenge faced by individual pupils who cannot speak good English.
County Cllr Andrea Kay said: “This last week [schools have returned] and we’ve got teachers saying that they have children that don’t speak English, but they’re having to accommodate [those pupils] within our schools.
“They are already sometimes at 30 children within a class and then [we may have] a couple of children who don’t speak English. What support are we giving… for schools and pupils?” she asked.
Government figures show a steady growth in the number of children in the county whose native tongue is not English.
In 2016/17, the latest year for which statistics are available, 12.8 percent of primary school pupils and 8.7 percent of secondary schools pupils in Lancashire have a first language other than English - both up by just over one percent since 2010.
There are 30 schools in the county where more than half of pupils have English as a second language. But in over 500 schools, non-native speakers make up less than 10 percent of their roll.
Lancashire County Council has a team of four consultants working with schools to help overcome language barriers and further resources are brought in when necessary.
“The vast majority of children who come [to the UK] will pick up playground vocabulary within the first six months - enough to get by,” Mr. Belbin said. “It’s the deeper language which might take 3 or 4 years, so that’s where [teacher] intervention is really important.
“Specific concepts [are taught], so that when children meet those concepts in the classroom, they will [be aware of them].”
But Mr. Belbin admitted that if all the schools in Lancashire who had at least some second language pupils suddenly requested support, the council would not be able to cope.
“If 460 primary schools all phoned up wanting support on 1st September, we wouldn’t be able to do that. We would prioritise and we may deliver training across clusters of schools where this is an issue,” he said.
The committee also heard that cultural, as well as linguistic, understanding was a key aspect of the council’s work.
County Cllr Kay suggested that university students studying languages could perhaps be offered placements within schools - to boost their own CVs and to help pupils who may be struggling.