Thursday, 23 February 2012

Immigration: what's it doing to our schools?

Today's migration figures show that long term international migration to the UK remains at historically high levels.  Even for those who, like most mainstream economists, think that the evidence is pretty strong that immigration generally has a positive impact on the UK economy, it is reasonable to ask what the impact of the resulting rapid demographic change will be on public services; in particular education, where the impact is likely to be the most immediate.   Two thirds of babies born in London have at least one foreign parent, as the Telegraph reported, while nearly 17% of primary school pupils do not have English as their mother tongue, rising to over half in Inner London. 

In a recent report for the Migration Advisory Committee, researchers from NIESR looked at precisely this question.   Our headline finding was that "non-European economic and student migrants impose costs on UK public services that are small both relative to the total cost of these services and to the share of these groups in the population as a whole." This in itself is not surprising, but what I found particularly interesting was what our review of the evidence suggests about the impact on the overall quality of state education, especially for those who are not of immigrant origin.   

It is now well known and widely reported  that pupils with English as an additional language (EAL pupils) do surprisingly well, with GCSE results roughly comparable to those for whom English is their first language, despite the fact that they are much more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds.   In itself, this is obviously encouraging, although equally it means that we need to focus even harder on improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged children who are not from immigrant backgrounds.

However, even if EAL pupils themselves perform well, surely the extra attention and resources that schools need to devote to them will reduce the quality of education for other pupils?  It is frequently asserted that the presence of significant numbers of non-English speaking children will put pressure on schools and local educational authorities, resulting in reduced performance for all children, including native English speakers. For example, the Minister for Immigration Damian Green argued:
 “The number of pupils with English as a second language makes life difficult for teachers, parents and pupils. Whether or not they can speak English, everyone suffers when it's more difficult for teachers in the classroom. This is also a huge pressure on local authorities trying to cope with uncontrolled immigration”
This sounds like common sense. But it appears to be wrong. While research on education and migration, as well as anecdotal reporting, has focused on the demands placed on schools by migrant pupils, statistical data on attainment, and recent research, suggests that migration has, if anything, a positive effect on school and pupil performance. Indeed, it has been apparent in government statistics for more than a decade that the performance of schools with higher proportions of pupils with English as an additional language has  been better than other schools with equivalent levels of disadvantage.

And, crucially, this is not just because the EAL pupils themselves do better than expected.  More recent data shows a small, but positive, correlation at local authority level between the performance of pupils for whom English is a first language (the proportion who get five good GCSEs, including maths and English) and the proportion of EAL pupils. In other words, English native speakers do somewhat better, not worse, in areas where there are more EAL pupils; rather than suffering, as Damian Green argues, they seem to benefit. And, since EAL status is correlated with deprivation, this apparent positive "spillover" effect would increase substantially if this was taken into account. 

Take Inner London for example.  As noted above, more than half of primary school pupils are EAL.  Does this, as Damien Green argues, make "life difficult for teachers, parents and pupils..whether or not they can speak English?".  Maybe. But what's certainly not apparent is that "everyone suffers".  Children whose first language is English are significantly more likely to achieve at the expected level than the national average; so are white children.  Given Inner London's high levels of deprivation, this is astonishing. And for pupils on free school meals (of any ethnicity) the outperformance is even higher: 69% achieve the expected level (Level 4 and above in English and maths), more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average. 

We do not know what the causal mechanism is here, but it almost certainly reflects and is closely related to the surprisingly good performance of schools in London in recent years, as highlighted here (£) and detailed in this recent research.  But are pupils doing better in schools with lots of EAL pupils because they are in London? Or are schools in London doing better because they have lots of EAL pupils?   Is it extra resources and policy focus, reflected in the concentration of academies serving deprived areas in London?  Do all pupils benefit from diversity, or do diverse schools attract committed and competent teachers?  As yet we don't know. What we can say is that dire prophecies of the collapse of the education system under the weight of non-English speaking children seem to be the opposite of the truth. 

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