How to measure the academic potential of overseas pupils

international students

Testing is vital to understand a child’s true ability, but they will underperform at GCSE and A-level if their English is not fluent enough, says Helen Wood

It is easy, following a string of downbeat articles in respected newspapers over the last months, to be gloomy about the financial stability of schools who are highly dependent on international boarders to fill places. And the recent fall out from the A-levels results debacle will not have helped matters.

Ensuring their child will get to their university of choice is the primary motivating factor behind international parents opting to send their off-spring to the UK.

According to ISC data, this accounts for the largest number of overseas pupils joining independent schools doing so in the Sixth Form, with the second largest group arriving in time for GCSEs in Year 10.

So, getting the right examination results matters a great deal for these international pupils and their parents. But what can school leaders do about this, when the unpredictability brought about by Covid-19 means the situation appears largely out of their control?

“Many international pupils begin their schooling in the UK with test results that under-predict their academic potential.”

The answer lies in demonstrating to international parents how you are mitigating the risks associated with their investment. You will not, as an individual head, have a great deal of influence over how pre-university entrance examinations will be conducted or results calculated.

You can, however, give your overseas pupils a much greater prospect of achieving their full academic potential if your school has a clear handle on what that is.

Too many schools use standardised tests with these particular students, in order to ascribe predicted grades, without understanding the impact of language proficiency on the data these tests produce. Many international pupils, therefore, begin their schooling in the UK with test results that under-predict their academic potential by an unmeasurable degree because of their English level at the point they were tested, according to research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI).

In the school where I was head of the international section, for example, the test we used with our pupils under-predicted our highest achievers by between two and three grades.

“But that kind of progress is a fantastic ‘value added’ news story about international pupils that could be used to drive further recruitment” I hear you shouting in response.

Well yes, it is, provided your school fully understands how to utilise your data on these international pupils’ areas of strength and analyse the language proficiency gap that pulled down their overall score. You need this for two reasons: firstly, so your teaching staff can confidently ignore the grades predicted by the standardised test and aim much higher; secondly, so you can be sure your teaching programme allows sufficient time to explicitly address that language gap in order to make achieving these higher grades attainable.

“An hour or two per week of EAL lessons alone will not facilitate higher academic outcomes.”

You will notice, here, that I have not said “timetable”. An hour or two per week of EAL lessons alone will not facilitate higher academic outcomes (perhaps more on the topic of bridging the language gap another time). However, knowing the size of the language gap is business critical, so let me address that here.

A huge study of EAL learner GCSE exam results undertaken by Oxford University found that the single most important factor influencing academic outcomes for these pupils was their proficiency in English. The data showed conclusively that, if the pupil could already be categorised as “fluent” by the time they took their GCSEs, these learners typically out-performed native speakers. If, however, they arrived in the UK with only “developing competence” or below and little time before tackling their GCSEs, this was a major-risk factor for significant underachievement since, on average, it took seven years English medium instruction for EAL pupils to reach the academic linguistic fluency required to be successful.

“You need to be crystal clear about their level of academic linguistic proficiency before they start at your school.”

The attainment penalty for arriving late in the UK with a low level of English was “severe” the EPI research confirmed. So, what does this mean for recruitment and admissions of these international pupils and your bottom line?

Assuming you want a reputation for achieving outstanding academic outcomes with your international pupils and a track record of these alumni progressing on to degrees at the world-famous universities they have set their hearts on, you need to be crystal clear about their level of academic linguistic proficiency before they start at your school.

Knowing the amount of time an EAL learner will have before taking any high-stakes examinations and what you are able to offer to address the language gap they arrive with, is also essential before allocating a place.

Offering a Sixth Form or GCSE place to a pupil with low English is not just unfair on the student and their teachers, because it sets both up for failure. It is also a terrible long-term marketing strategy, regardless how strong the short-term financial imperative might be.