"School choice as a mean of voluntary racial segregation"

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
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This title is taken from Tom Bell's comments (on his blog) on the interview with Chris McGovern - chair of the Campaign for Real Education, and Sue Seifert- former primary school head teacher - on Radio 4's TODAY programme on August 27 2013.

Mr Bell was referring to a discussion on the TODAY programme of some recent research on international students in primary schools. The findings of the study had been summarised in an article that appeared in the journal for the Royal Economic Society. According to Mr Bell, the study which looked at primary school performance data, showed that 'contrary to what some might expect, having a high proportion of pupils from non-English speaking backgrounds in a school does not reduce its performance.'

I have quoted from Mr Bell's post as I only tuned in to the interview part way through. Like Mr Bell, however, my immediate concern is with some of the remarks made by Mr McGovern during what I heard of the radio interview.

Dismissing the research as lightweight and unreliable, Mr McGovern responded with the comment 'It's a fact that if you're teaching a class and half the children can't speak English, it's going to take up teacher time. It's going to have a negative impact on those children.'

Ms Seifert, a head teacher with some 30 years' experience, countered by saying that no parent, in all her years as a head teacher (nearly thirty I believe), had ever lodged such a complaint. Moreover, she seemed to largely support the study's findings having worked in a school in a London borough where the majority of students were additional language speakers.

McGovern went on to suggest that parents should be informed of the number of students with early stages English in their children's schools so that they could choose to transfer their own children to other schools. (He also responded to Ms. Seifert's view that EAL children enrich the school ethos, by dismissively suggesting that her opinions were 'idealistic.')

So this high profile educationist is recommending educational apartheid along the lines of the United States in the last Century? I wonder if Mr McGovern appreciates, for starters, that there are now around I million EAL students in our schools?

Mr McGovern has spent some 35 years in education. He has been a history teacher in state schools, a head master in an independent school and an OFSTED inspector. This level of experience infers that perhaps he is an 'expert' whose opinions carry weight. This is deeply worrying.

May I offer a few points in defence of these children he seeks to segregate from mainstream education?

1. Research has shown that best teaching practice is to place EAL children in classes in mainstream education based on their academic and cognitive ability, not their English language skills. Thus, if they are good scientists, they should be placed in top set even if they are only at the early stages of acquiring English.
2. Because many of these children are extremely bright and come from education systems with high standards, they often set the pace for the other children in the class and this can lift the whole-class performance.
3. As these children cannot acquire English by osmosis, the most enlightened schools provide specialists in EAL to give the children additional lessons in language studied through the curriculum (not the Russian interpreter McGovern approves of who was paid by an independent school to sit beside a student all day translating the lesson for him/her).
4. In my experience many teachers do not spend an inordinate amount of time with these children because they cannot. Moreover, there is currently very little initial teaching training in EAL for trainee teachers.
5. The best schools organise in-house training in EAL for their teachers despite the lack of funding.
6. Ms Seifert is right when she states that international children can enrich the whole school environment through the diversity in learning styles, languages and the prior knowledge, experiences and study ethos they bring.
7. Many of these children are so motivated to succeed that they often produce wonderful results at GCSE and at A2 to warm the hearts of any teacher dedicated to achieving the highest standards from ALL their students.
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