Department of Economics

Non-native Speakers of English in the Classroom: What Are the Effects on Pupil Performance?

Does the presence of non-native English speakers have an impact on the educational outcomes of native English speakers at the end of primary school, and is the effect positive or negative?

The number of children going to school in England who do not speak English as a first language has increased over recent years. Nowadays about 12% of primary school children do not speak English as a first language. The actual number increased by about one third between 2003 and 2009. This increase has been driven by immigration (there was an acceleration from 2005 onwards, reflecting the enlargement of Europe and the subsequent immigration of people from Eastern European countries to the UK) although the trend might also be driven by higher birth rates among ethnic minority groups.

In the media, this trend has been interpreted as being potentially detrimental to the educational prospects of native English speakers. Yet academic research suggest that immigrants with tertiary education exceeds that of the native-born population by 16%, and second-generation ethnic minority immigrants tend to be better educated than their white native peers. 


Summary

This study, by Dr Shqiponja Telhaj, investigates whether the presence of non-native English speakers has an impact on the educational outcomes of native English speakers at the end of primary school.

Using a census of all children in English primary schools, the following questions were examined:

What is the association between the percentage of non-native English speakers in the year group and the educational attainment of native English speakers at the end of primary school?

How does this change as controls are added? In particular, under what circumstances can we interpret this as a causal relationship?

The data was also split into white and non-white non-native speakers. Although the latter is more important numerically, the former shows a very sharp increase on account of Eastern European enlargement.

Methodology

The National Pupil Database between 2003 and 2009 provides the data for the research. This database contains detailed pupil-level information for all state schools in England (such as attainment at age 7 and 11; gender; ethnicity; whether English spoken as a first language; whether a pupil is eligible to receive free school meals). It can be matched with school-level data sets that contain information on the schools attended (Annual School Census). It can also be matched with school-level data on expenditure. 

Initially, the study focused on the association between the proportion of non-native speakers in the year group and the educational attainment of native speakers at the end of primary school. The study looked at:

  • The relationship between the percentage of non-native English speakers (by ethnic background) and age 11 test results of native speakers;
  • The relationship between the number of languages spoken in the year group and age 11 test results of native speakers;
  • The effects for native speakers who might potentially be more negatively affected by an increase in the percentage of non-native speakers: economically disadvantaged pupils; those who performed poorly in tests at the age of 7; going to school in London (which has a high percentage of non-native speakers);
  • Differences between non-native speakers who first appear in the data in the last 2 years of primary school (Years 5 and 6) and non-native speakers who were in the census before that time.

In addition, the study considered how the percentage of white non-native speakers is affected by the increased demand for Catholic schooling due to the rise in immigrants from Poland from 2005 onwards, and what consequences (if any) the influx might have had for native English speakers in these schools.

Key findings

This investigation shows that the negative correlation between the number of non-native English speakers and the educational attainment of native English speakers (as the former increases, the latter decreases) observed in the raw data is mainly an artefact of selection: non-native speakers are more likely to attend school with disadvantaged native speakers.

The negative correlation can be explained by sorting of non-native speakers into schools with less desirable characteristics and the negative effects can be ruled out. This refutes perceptions (in the media) that the increase in students who do not speak English as a first language is detrimental to the education of native English speakers.

It seems likely that most primary-aged students catch up in English proficiency at a rate such that they do not impede the progress of their native-speaking peers.


Access the paper

Geay, Charlotte; McNally, Sandra; and Telhaj, Shqiponja (2013) Non-native speakers of English in the classroom: what are the effects on pupil performance? Economic Journal. ISSN 00130133. 

To access this paper, please visit Sussex Research Online