2.8.2 ESOL and SEN learners: policies and practice

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

To understand what ESOL needs entail;

To think about how you meet a wide range of needs for your pupils as part of your standard teaching practice; and

Identify what other support might be available to ensure all your pupils achieve the best possible outcomes.

What do ESOL needs entail? How are these laid out in policy/legislation?

Finding policies related to ESOL can be problematic because of the wide number of similar terms used. However, the choice of phrasing also reflects a change in attitudes. Terms such as English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL), Second Language (L2) learner, or non-native speaker are commonly used in other countries to refer to groups of learners who study English.

Howard (2012) gives a good overview of how immigration in the UK contextualises ESOL policies. One of the key points to remember is that little preparation had been made in schools, the assumption being that immigrants would leave the UK once the post-war labour shortage was over. When this did not happen, schools in the 1960s found themselves struggling to meet the needs of children born in the UK but who did not use English at home. The Local Government Act in the 1966 treated ESOL as an issue of race, with extra funding provided to schools with over 2% of pupils from Commonwealth backgrounds. Howard (2012) points out that funding followed this principle of focusing on the ethnicity of an individual school's population up until 1999 and the introduction of the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant. Whilst still relating language needs to ethnicity, this change in funding policy was influential because it linked funding to each pupil rather than setting a threshold for a proportion across a whole school.

This change in funding also supported an overall shift in how ESOL was conceptualised across the school sector. As parental choice became a more dominant narrative, the idea of concentrating ethnic minorities into particular schools was incompatible. An amendment to the Race Relations Act (1976) was made in 2000, prompted by issues raised following the death of Stephen Lawrence. All schools were expected to address racism, and in line with the broader Every Child Matters narrative schools were also expected to meet the needs of all learners even if there are a low number of pupils with ESOL needs. Rather than being an excuse for underachievement, ESOL needs were now emphatically challenges that needed to be met. Schools were also expected to play a greater role in making new arrivals feel welcome, particularly in outreach for newly arrived economic migrants or asylum seekers (for example, through offering classes for whole families to attend together). Around the same time, analysis of the examination performance of different ethnic groups challenged the assumption that ethnic minorities were low achievers. This was emphasised by a larger number of very high-achieving groups as patterns of migration to the UK changed. Today, the education system is much more internationally-minded and the UK is seeing very different types of migration. Policy seems to be slow in responding to these changes, but already schools are seeing new demographics and much higher parental expectations that ESOL needs will be met effectively.  

How can a teacher accommodate an ESOL pupil in a mainstream classroom?

One of the key issues of accommodating ESOL needs is making an assessment of needs. There is currently no national system in the UK of assessing language proficiency for speakers of other languages. Making an informal assessment of proficiency can also be misleading because conversational or social English is very different from the demands of academic texts. As early as Key Stage 3, pupils will be expected to engage with more challenging texts and encounter unfamiliar vocabulary.

Whilst there is no assessment system within schools, well-established frameworks are available and are widely used in international schools. When assessing English proficiency, it is common to either use a numerical IELTS score or the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR; sometimes just CEF). This will be helpful in assessing progress as there are a wide variety of resources available to support assessments. The CEFR is also used on all textbooks aimed at ESOL, so give a good indication of the appropriate level. As a rough indication, an IELTS score of 5.5 is typically requested for university entry. This equates to B2 on the CEFR, which describes the pupil as an independent user of English. For pupils who take the majority of their secondary education in the UK, an important decision needs to be made whether to enter them for the GCSE English ESOL variant or the standard GCSE English or GCSE English Language. The ESOL variant is carefully designed to avoid idioms and to be more accessible to an international audience. However, it is typically not taken as evidence of proficiency by universities. The reality for many pupils is therefore some attempt at learning by immersion, with no opportunities for code-switching (where proficiency in their first language can help to make sense of another language, such as by explaining complex grammatical points). Despite the lack of resources and support, there are still ways that teachers can make it easier for pupils with ESOL needs; these will be returned to in Module 4.

What do SEN needs entail? How are these laid out in policy/legislation?

As with ESOL, Special Educational Needs are no longer an excuse for poor achievement, but a challenge which needs to be met by schools. Another similarity with ESOL is that provision for SEN has largely shifted from separate classes or concentrating particular types of need into certain schools, so that now pupils with SEN are expected to be part of the mainstream classroom wherever possible. SEN is currently conceptualised much more broadly than it once was. While there is still funding attached to diagnosis of particular needs, it is more common to think about a continuum of needs and provision. In line with the principles of inclusion, and in common with the ESOL practices described above, there is a belief that good teaching should be able to meet the needs of all pupils. In guidance published in 2004, this was described as the belief that "effective teaching for children with SEN shares most of the characteristics of effective teaching for all children" (DfES, 2004). As with ESOL, however, the reality of meeting a wide range of needs with scarce resources means that this can often be difficult.

As well as moving away from an emphasis on disability or barriers to learning and more towards principles of inclusion, current practice also emphasises personalised learning. This means thinking about how all pupils access the curriculum and wider school life and the wide range of needs and backgrounds of your learners (as we saw in the chapter on the hidden curriculum). Having high expectations for pupils to achieve and for schools and teachers to enable progress does not, however, mean that all pupils must achieve equally. Schools and teachers should expect to be evaluated on the effort and resources they have put in place to enable good progress relative to a pupil's starting point. Expectations should therefore be high, but realistic - including having a realistic (but optimistic) view of the support and resources available. Progressing from this standard expectation of personalisation and differentiation, SEN provision can be usefully thought of as having three different stages. The first two stages, School Action and School Action Plus, indicate that the school has made its own assessment and created a needs plan which all teachers should follow. This will typically include targeted support or additional resources from within the school, usually funding from the school's existing resources. The next stage is an external assessment, leading to a formal statement of Special Educational Needs. While it would be inadvisable to ignore School Action and School Action Plus plans of support, the Statement of Special Educational Needs carries much more influence, and failing to follow it could have significant implications for a teacher since following the plan has been deemed important for meeting the pupil's needs.

Recent developments have clarified and raised expectations for how pupils with SEN are supported. This is ambitiously stated in the Children and Families Act (2014) as pupils being entitled to support which enables them to achieve the "best possible educational and other outcomes". This policy also makes clear that local authorities have a duty to ensure that there is sufficient support, including making sure that schools follow care plans and are provided with whatever resources they need, including funding. Crucially, however, local authorities now have this as a clear responsibility even before a care plan has been created. This is intended to overcome the delays where pupils could have been left with very little support as they waited to be 'statemented'. An effective Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) will be valuable in identifying and monitoring pupils who may have SEN, and should be able to offer support for a wide range of needs or signpost you to other support and training. No teacher or SENCo will be experienced in the full range of needs, so it should be expected that part of your professional development will have to be reactive to the particular pupils in your groups. Nevertheless, as a general principle you should try to build your skills as proactively as possible, particularly in common areas such as autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and visual impairment.

While personalisation and differentiation is important as part of meeting the needs of each individual, addressing outcomes beyond educational achievement can add further complexity. It is therefore important not to focus too much on each individual and to consider the interaction of needs within each group. This will be a challenge even in the small class sizes of a special school. Care plans and targeted support, such as individual needs assistants, will also tend to focus on an individual's needs in general. Applying this to the support they will need in the specific context of your classes will require in-depth knowledge of your group. Helpful guidance is offered by Ofsted (2004) in terms of what a teacher should expect to do as part of supporting pupils with SEN. The first of these is teamwork, emphasising the need for a coordinated response across all subjects and with different staff. As with all pupils, Ofsted also expects teachers to capture the interest of pupils with SEN and set high expectations and personalised targets and learning outcomes as well as helping learners to be more independent (both in general and in terms of directing their own learning).

Is the provision for ESOL and SEN learners in line with the demand/need in both mainstream and special schools? Why/ why not?

When comparing the provision for ESOL and SEN needs, it is clear that policy has given much more attention to SEN. Good practice in ESOL is difficult to find, and while there are resources and training opportunities available, these can be limited. Resources also tend to focus solely on English, so responsibility for meeting ESOL needs can fall onto English teachers. This not only makes too big an assumption that teaching English is similar to teaching ESOL, but it leaves other curriculum subjects either creating their own resources or struggling to meet ESOL needs. The demand for meeting the needs of all pupils has also increased, but without any significant additional investment - teachers are now expected to aim for the 'best' outcomes for pupils not just educationally, but also in terms of social, emotional and health outcomes. However, expectations for differentiation and personalisation are clearly higher than ever before, so you might need to demand more support than ever before.


For both ESOL and SEN needs, the policies discussed in this chapter have shown a shift over the last 70 years. Over this time, expectations on pupils have increased so that ESOL or SEN is no longer an excuse for a lack of progress. This expectation has also passed on to teachers, so it is no longer acceptable to fail to meet the needs of pupils - including pupils who are waiting to be formally assessed. Setting higher expectations is not just policy rhetoric: the UK is seeking to attract highly skilled and educated migrants, which means promising a world-class standard of education for their children. Schools near universities are already seeing an increase in pupils who attend for a year or two while their parents take postgraduate courses, and there are high expectations that pupils will make good progress in such a short space of time. Neither ESOL nor SEN needs are acceptable excuses for a lack of progress, but ESOL is perhaps seeing the strongest shift in opinion as expectations are raised for UK schools to offer a high-quality education for a new generation of global citizens, many of whom are already established high-achievers.


Department for Education and Skills (DfES). (2001). Special Educational Needs Code of Practice. London: HMSO.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES). (2004). Removing Barriers to Achievement. The Government's Strategy for SEN. London: HMSO.

Howard, S. (2012). Schooling, ethnicity and English as an additional language, in V. Brooks, I. Abbott and P. Huddleston (eds.), Preparing to Teach in Secondary Schools (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press. Pp.301-315.

Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted). (2004). Special Educational Needs and Disability. Towards Inclusive Schools. London: HMSO.

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