What is an appropriate level of English for International Boarding school pupils?

“How young people are integrated into Boarding school life is arguably as important as their IELTS score”

A recent study by University of York highlighted that while the threshold for English competency for degree study in the UK is IELTS 5.5 this is not necessarily the level that would allow a student to thrive in UK Higher Education.

It found that international students with an average IELTS of between 6.5 and 7.5 had an average English vocabulary just under half the size of that of the home students and their difficulties with reading and writing were far greater than those reported on the same tests for home students with dyslexia.

“There are over 27,000 international pupils in UK boarding schools and for many English is their 2nd or even 3rd language”

So what level of English is necessary for them to easily transition to UK life, recognising the results of the York study? There are clearly both academic and social factors to consider here:

Academically, the age of the child is an obvious factor. “It is difficult to conceive of a student below the level of CEFR Level B1 (IELTS 4-.4.5) being able to transition into Key Stage 2 or 3 of a British school without considerable support”, explains Chris Lewis, director of Studies at Bishopstrow School.

“The demands of Key Stage 4 or 5 education in a senior school or sixth form would increase this level to at least CEFR B2 (IELTS 5-6.5) possibly higher depending on the linguistic demands of the subjects to be studied and the expectations placed on the student”.

Dr Helen Wood, head of the International Section, d’Overbroeck’s agrees the bar for A Level study may be even higher than IELTS 6.5 and argues that subjects studied at A-level are not really a factor: “research at university level shows that students taking technical subjects like Engineering need to be able to write in a much wider range of genres than History undergraduates, for example.

“So, on an academic level for GCSE or A-Level study, Boarding schools are generally requiring a higher level of English mastery than the government threshold for degree study.”

Moving onto the social aspect, younger children have an even greater challenge to communicate clearly with their peers when their social skills are naturally less developed than older students, and may be more prone to being homesick and uncertain in their new surroundings. Therefore, communication barriers can be more damaging socially and from a pastoral care perspective for younger children than their University peers.

So, how younger pupils are integrated into the UK Education system can be critical to how well they settle in and how quickly their language skills develop, says Pete Collier, EAL teacher at Kings College St Michaels.

Collier says that while formal EAL teaching is important, more task-based, communicative lessons in small mixed nationality groups, where teamwork and student-to-student interaction is also vital, especially in the first few weeks of a student’s arrival and the level should be pitched at lower ability learners.

“Most importantly, these lessons should require the participants to speak to each other in English to achieve the task set and stay well away from course books in favour of more meaningful interaction”, he adds.

One thing that seems clear in terms of limiting the impact of lower than ideal English competency on arrival in the UK, ‘is for families to be as honest as possible prior to arrival about the ability of each pupil so the right support mechanisms can be put in place from the start’, says Lucy Cattermole, director of recruitment, Kings Education. 

Also, parents need to be encouraged to recognise that gaining confidence in English via a specific ‘pre-sessional’ English language program or a sustained EAL provision in a mainstream school is better than pitching an unprepared student straight into a mainstream school without regular EAL support.

Caroline Nixon, general secretary of BAISIS says there is evidence that it can take up to 7 years for a student’s CALP (cognitive academic language proficiency) to catch up with their BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills).

“In other words, a child joining a UK boarding school might pick up spoken English quickly yet never become proficient in written academic English… unless they receive specialist teaching to accelerate its acquisition.”

So, how young people are integrated into boarding school life is arguably as important as their IELTS score, in terms of how their language skills develop, but certainly, it would seem the government’s IELTS threshold for degree study needs a closer inspection if the experiences of Boarding school professionals are indicative of the challenges faced.

About the author:  Pat Moores is director and co-founder of UK Education Guide.