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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

The impact of school closures on pupils with English as an additional language

Feyisa Demie, Honorary Professor and Head of Research at Lambeth LA at Durham University

Pupils with English as an additional language (EAL) attract a great deal of interest among policymakers, school leaders and teachers, yet there are relatively few studies that have examined EAL attainment and the impact of Covid 19. This issue is increasingly important for EAL policy development, given the growth in the EAL population in England: there are currently more than 1.6 million EAL pupils in England, and the percentage of pupils recorded as speaking English as an additional language in schools has more trebled since 1997 (Demie, 2018).

Stages of English proficiency have been widely used to describe the different stages of learning English language throughout the 1990s and 2000s (see DfE, 2020; Demie, 2018), and there are different local EAL assessment systems, although little research has been done at the national level in England to develop an EAL assessment system. Research at the local level in the UK has consistently shown that proficiency in English can provide essential information about an EAL learner’s likelihood of succeeding in school and their potential need for support (Strand & Demie, 2005; Demie, 2018; Strand & Lindorff, 2020). Building on the past research on EAL attainment, our ongoing study looks to answer three research questions.

  1. What impact have Covid-19 and school closures had on the English proficiency of EAL pupils?
  2. What does English proficiency data tell us about the achievement of EAL pupils?
  3. What are the implications for targeted interventions?

The methodological approach for this research comprises data analysis and a survey. The case study local authority (LA) has carried out an annual EAL census each January by stage of English proficiency using the five-point scale, ranging from beginner to fluent. These include ‘new to English’, ‘early acquisition’, ‘developing competence’, ‘competent’ and ‘fluent’ (DfE, 2020). The methodological framework can be summarised as follows.

  • Firstly, the case study LA’s data on EAL pupils’ were analysed by stage of English proficiency to establish the impact of school closures on learning the English language by comparing pre- and post-Covid data of January 2020 and 2021.
  • Secondly, KS2 and GCSE pupil-level attainment data was analysed by levels of proficiency in English to illustrate differences in attainment.
  • Thirdly, questionnaire surveys were carried out to find out about pupil, parent, teacher and school leader views about EAL children’s home learning experiences during school closures.

This blogpost narrates how we carried out the EAL research at time when school-focused research was challenging due to school closures. Our research shows that EAL students face a double job: the subject learning loss experienced by disadvantaged children, and a language learning loss. The initial findings that estimate the change in the EAL achievement gap and English proficiency development, using pre- and post-lockdown EAL proficiency census data and survey evidence, also suggest that the Covid pandemic has had a significant negative impact on EAL learners relative to their peers. The study and literature reviews identified some of the main reasons for the widening achievement gap. These include:

  • less support in improving English proficiency during lockdown
  • missing access to small group lessons and one-to-one support in school
  • less access to technology for online learning
  • lack of parent English language skills to support learning at home
  • lack of targeted government funding to support EAL pupils.

The interim findings give valuable insight into the challenges facing schools and teachers, with suggestions for targeted interventions to close the achievement gap between EAL pupils who are not fluent in English and their peers. These findings from the survey and the data will be formally published when the research is completed.

The study of issues related to the English language support offered to children who have English as an Additional Language remains in its infancy in the UK. While nationally there are many research initiatives on the impact of school closure and Covid-19 for disadvantaged and SEN pupils, I have yet to see any research that focus on EAL.

Clearly EAL is an under-researched area in UK, and there is an urgent need for more research into the impact of school closure on EAL, the testing and assessment of bilingual children, and on how schools help pupils with EAL access the curriculum, and as well as more research into the benefits of using first language in classroom.


Demie, F. (2018). English language proficiency and attainment of EAL (English as second language) pupils in England. Journal of multilingual and multicultural development, 39(7), 641–653.

Department for Education [DfE] (2020). English proficiency of pupils with English as an additional language.

Strand, S., & Demie, F. (2005). English language acquisition and attainment at the end of primary school. Educational Studies, 13(3): 275–291.

Strand, S. & Lindorff, A. (2020). English as an additional language: Proficiency in English, educational achievement and rate of progression in English language learning. University of Oxford.