The Impact of COVID-19 for Pupils Using English as an Additional Language

The pandemic has had wide-reaching implications across the education sector, but for pupils with EAL, there have been particular challenges, as well as benefits, related to remote and blended learning, communication, and also in relation to staff training.

Here we take a look at some of these issues in more detail, supported by research and insights around these provided in early March 2021, by Mark Sims, HMI and Former National Lead for EAL, Ofsted. 


Possible benefits of lockdown and remote learning for pupils with EAL

  • Online resources - there has been the development of, and access to, a greater range of free online EAL and bilingual resources either at local authority level or nationally from professional associations or companies.
  • Opportunities to develop IT skills - where available, EAL learners will have had more time developing their skills using IT and media. This will include the use the internet for research where pupils have broadband access equipment and a good wi-fi signal.
  • First language development - extended time at home will have created greater opportunities for EAL learners to maintain and develop their first language in homes where English is not spoken or where relatives are bilingual.
  • Communication between schools and parents - schools have had to develop other ways of communicating with parents other than face-to-face. This has led to greater use of social media (including the use of bilingual texts or translators). Some leaders have noted that there is a more personal contact with parents through telephone calls and texts. Where available, bilingual staff have been able to explain key messages in home languages.
  • Staff training - in some schools, staff have had more time to extend their professional development. This has led to a greater take up of online courses from EAL providers.


Possible challenges of lockdown and remote learning

  • Speaking and hearing English - for some EAL learners their families may speak another language other than English all the time at home and within tight-knit communities. In some cases, parents will speak and understand very little English and so are unable to help support their children’s spoken English language development. Parents may access mostly or entirely satellite television channels and DVDs in languages other than English. As a result, there may be a lack of English social media at home as well. Where pupils are confined to home there may be little opportunity to hear models of spoken English from their peers who speak English as a first language and to practice speaking to them in English.
  • Reading English - there may be a lack of English language books at home if parents do not speak or read English well themselves or where there are financial difficulties to buy resources for their children.
  • Access to free laptops - this is not automatically possible for EAL learners, unless they also have SEND or are eligible for free school meals. EAL is not recognised as vulnerable group in England, unlike in Wales. Even where EAL learners have been eligible for a laptop, the availability of laptops has been patchy. Some schools have reported some laptops not arriving until September after lockdown finished. Some are still waiting for them to arrive. Some said that the numbers sent did not match the level of need in the school. Some laptops did not work or were programmed with the wrong software which was not compatible with the school’s system. Just before half term the government announced a reduction in the free laptop scheme.
    Many EAL learners live in large extended families. There may be only one laptop per household. As a result, competition for use with working parents and other siblings can be intense. Some schools said parents prioritised access to the older siblings who may be taking examination subjects.
    Some parents and pupils may face challenges accessing the laptops they have already. They may not have had sufficient training to use them. Where there are language barriers they may not be able to follow instructions or understand the work sufficiently if they can access it. Some parents do not have access to broadband at home or they live in an area with a poor signal.
  • Access to Covid-19 health information and guidance - any news heard by parents on television may be through the lens of foreign language channels, which may mean so not accessing key messages from the UK government. Where families watch UK channels, they may not be sufficiently fluent in English to understand all the key messages. Where Covid-19 information is available in written form it may be in English print only. Where it is translated into other languages, some parents may not be literate in their home language.
  • Health risks - EAL learners may be part of a large family living in over-crowded accommodation. There are greater risks of contracting Covid-19 living in large multi-generational households where there are older relatives and those with underlying health issues. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) families are at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19.
  • Attendance - parents may be more reluctant to send their children to school because of the greater health risks. This could lead to extended absence or requests for elective home education, even in families who are not themselves fluent in English. At the start of lockdown, a number of families chose to return to their country of origin and have not yet returned.
  • Free school meals - where EAL learner are eligible for these it has been difficult for parents to access the vouchers. The barriers include not being aware of the guidance, not understanding the procedures to follow either because of lack of English or low literacy skills, lack of access to IT equipment and/or a printer to print vouchers, and, where they do possess equipment, lack of IT knowledge.
  • Family finances - there have been specific challenges for BAME families reported by schools, related to habitual residency criteria, legal delays over their status affecting their access to universal credit and other benefits, and reduced employment.
  • Working conditions at home - some EAL pupils live in large multigenerational families where several siblings may have to share one room. This can lead to a lack of space or quiet environment in which to work. In large families, pupils may have been called on to look after younger siblings, especially if parents are working.
  • Remote lessons - teachers and support staff may not be able to give EAL learners the same degree of support that may be available in school (for example bilingual support, scaffolded work). Where pupils are sent paper packs to work through at home, there may not be an adult at home sufficiently literate who is able to support and guide them.
  • Central support services - where specialist EAL services still exist they have only been able to interact with families and schools remotely. Central services have been reluctant to visit homes because of safety fears and may have requested schools to do visits on their behalf.
  • Training for staff - there has been a loss of face-to-face EAL training including continuing professional development, networks and conferences.


Response from the four UK Governments

In Wales, EAL learners, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller pupils, refugees and asylum seekers are all listed as vulnerable groups in their Covid-19 guidance:

“For the purposes of this guidance, a wide definition of vulnerable and disadvantaged learners has been adopted. It includes, but is not limited to, learners who are in one or more of the following groups:

  • learners with special educational needs (SEN)
  • learners from minority ethnic groups who have English or Welsh as an additional language (EAL/WAL)
  • care-experienced children, including looked after children
  • learners educated other than at school (EOTAS)
  • children of refugees and asylum seekers
  • Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children
  • learners eligible for free school meals (eFSM)
  • young carers"


None of the groups in italics above are identified as vulnerable in the equivalent English, Northern Irish and Scottish government Covid-19 guidance on vulnerable pupils.

Scotland has published specific Covid-19 EAL guidance for parents, whereas England, Northern Ireland and Wales have not published any Covid-19 EAL guidance for parents.

The anomaly between England and Wales was raised in the House of Lords on 27 October 2020 in a question during the government statement on the disparate impact of COVID-19. The response from Baroness Berridge was as follows:

“… The Government are firmly committed to delivering a cross-government strategy to tackle these inequalities. I will have to come back to her on the specific point about BAME; I presume that BAME registration would include that as an ethnicity but I will double-check. My noble friend Lord Greenhalgh, who is the MHCLG lead on this issue, wrote to local ​authority chief executives in April to point out the specific support that those communities might need in terms of services such as water sanitation and waste disposal on their sites. We have been working closely with the various representative organisations to ensure, again, that the message gets out to communities that might be harder to reach than others.”

While support has been provided in different forms from education sector bodies, the government, and EAL associations, the catch-up for pupils with EAL is likely to be a long period of sustained effort, as staff, pupils and parents explore how to boost attainment in coming weeks and months.


Learn more about the next steps in supporting pupils at the EAL Teaching and Learning Forum on May 25th. This interactive online event will provide updates and guidance from sector leaders and practitioners through a series of workshops, and give you the opportunity to connect with and learn from peers.

Click below to find out more.

EAL Teaching and Learning: Raising Standards to Improve Outcomes