Diana Sutton and Kevan Collins on English as an Additional Language research in the UK

Diana Sutton and Kevan Collins on English as an Additional Language research in the UK

Unbound Philanthropy spoke on October 28, 2015 with Diana Sutton, Executive Director of the Bell Foundation, and Kevan Collins, Executive Director of the Education Endowment Foundation, to talk about our co-funding of research and pilot projects that seek to raise the attainment of poor pupils in the UK labeled as “English as an Additional Language” (EAL).

Taryn Higashi (TH): Could you share some background about your interest in funding EAL?

Diana Sutton (DS): The Bell Foundation began in 2012, with a long history prior to that of working on language education and teaching training. We wanted to develop a new charitable program in the UK with a focus on language education and social disadvantage. We are also using some of the technical expertise in Bell, the company we own, that teaches English as a foreign language, for training teachers and supporting those for whom English is an additional language who are disadvantaged. There is a situation of rising numbers and there is expertise and funding disappearing in the sector.

Kevan Collins (KC): We think the application of good research brings wisdom to this issue. We want to support children from wherever they come from, breaking that cycle that says the more education you have, the less disadvantaged you are. Additionally, my background as a teacher was spent in East London and West Yorkshire, where the majority of children speak English as an additional language.

TH: What are the short-term and long-term goals that you’re hoping to achieve with the pilot projects?

KC: The work to date has already achieved some outcomes. Our review of literature revealed key aspects of knowledge that the system hadn’t been fully aware of. Particularly under the headline of general performance, there are groups of children who aren’t making the progress we hoped. Exposing and bringing that issue to the fore is already an outcome.

The second outcome is in making a call for programs that we can evaluate, bringing people together and having those conversations has helped to codify and structure what researchers are doing. We’ll have some increased confidence on what works and what doesn’t when serving these children. We can then go to scale and disseminate and share more widely. We’re equipping teachers in schools to use what works.

DS: Our research has actually begun to change the dialogue around this issue. There were inaccurate perceptions that either EAL learners are a huge problem for schools, or  the other extreme, that they’re not a problem at all and are outperforming other groups. The three organisations are shining a spotlight on where underachievement for EAL learners actually is. It’s been helpful in beginning to get engagement from decision makers, and having a more informed, accurate debate with public data.

TH: Is there a model that you have in mind for scaling up successful projects?

KC: There’s knowledge about effective practices of serving these children. Our approach is to spread the knowledge as widely as possible, particularly by encouraging and using local networks for dissemination. But also to be ready to build the capacity of organizations that have demonstrated they’ve got very powerful approaches. We’re thoughtful about how to move knowledge around. Generating evidence is one thing, mobilizing it is quite another, and it needs more attention in many ways.

DS: Capacity building is one of the objectives our program. There’s very little capacity in this sector because of funding cuts. Now, there are pockets of expertise around the country, and a limited evidence base of what works. We’re thinking about this as regional centers of expertise. It’s also a challenge because the education system in general has undergone a lot of evolution. The other thing about working with EEF that is so positive is they have the “what works” network, which disseminates best practices around schools. We each bring different set of strengths and expertise to the partnership.

TH: Any reflections on the partnership?

KC: The expertise from Bell and Unbound has really complemented what we can offer. All too often we have pockets of great stuff but we don’t align it.

DS: You can triple the amount of resources each funder is putting in and you really can have an impact much greater than you can do on your own.

TH: Is there anything in addition that helps make the partnership work? Is it the complementary expertise? Leveraging resources? Equal partnership? What actually powers the work forward?

KC: It’s adopting a mindset where you allow trust to govern what you’re going to do rather than endless bureaucracy. If you can make the leap based on trust, you can really move on much more quickly.

DS: I agree. We feel appropriately involved in the right stages of the process. Everyone is committed to achieving the same outcome with a can-do approach.

TH: What is your wishlist for philanthropic investments in this area of EAL or this population of children beyond EAL?

KC: I want to encourage organizations that allocate funding to constantly inform spending in a reliable way with evidence and data to start with. Additionally, when we find [approaches] that work, we can encourage others to make them widely available.

DS: We want to move to a society where having an additional language is considered an asset and where every child can be the best that they can be. It means that we move from artificial headlines to evidence-based policy. As a challenge to us as funders, we think: is there any group that we’ve missed? Are their hidden groups that we want to pay attention to? There will be additional challenges around this work.

TH: How do you think the current refugee crisis will impact this work?

DS: One of the issues will be what tools from this project and other work can help schools deal coherently with new arrivals. It’s disappointing that the UK is taking so few refugees. I know from my international work at SAVE the Children that the reason children travel is because of war and natural disasters. Although some adults may be  seeking a better life, most often for children it is  because they’re fleeing persecution. The project can potentially uncover interventions that will be helpful for schools. Our jointly commissioned research shows that new arrivals do particularly badly, in terms of the data. This work has the potential to have a real impact.


Note: For further reading about funder collaborations, check out this recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review: "Five Guidelines for Successful Funder Collaborations," by Will Seldon.