I’ve mentioned before the plethora of acronyms in the teaching profession.

Student data packs are full of acronyms; as a teacher, you need to know which of your students are classified as EAL, SEN, FSM and MAG&T in order to plan lessons which cater to everybody’s needs.

If a student is classified as EAL (English as an Additional Language), it means that they spent their formative years reciting stories in another language. It says nothing of their current ability to speak, read or write the English language. Nor does it speak to their story.

Based on the definition alone, I can think of many of my friends who would be classified as EAL due to the Afrikaans/ Zulu/ French/ Xhosa that they were first exposed to as babies. However, their ability to communicate in English is not to be sneezed at – they excelled at top English-speaking schools and universities and can tell the difference between ‘there‘ and ‘their‘ better than most Americans…

Similarly, I was surprised when the new EAL students lists were circulated a few weeks into term. I had a fair number more EAL students than I initially realised; largely due to their overall competence in the language (especially when compared to many of the “true” English students in class). EAL is just a label, but it doesn’t reveal a lot about the differences between each child’s experience after the age of 3. Many of these students are disadvantaged because of their parents’ English skills – or lack thereof – but still speak English outside of school, read English books and are more fluent in the language than their “mother-tongue” because it’s the language of the country they now live in.

This, however, is certainly not the reality for everyone. Due to the location of our school and its proximity to an airport/ home office, we have a large number of causal admissions during the year – many of whom are refugees or asylum seekers. These students (most often boys) have fled family blood feuds in Eastern Europe, travelled by foot from Afghanistan and been smuggled out of their homes after being approached by the Taliban. These students often have no idea what has become of their family and friends back home and are left to live with foster families, many of whom are only in it for the extra £150 a week and the tax break at the end of the year. These students have gone through horrific journeys to get to the UK; they arrive here with tales of having to leave dead friends on mountain passes because they had no option but to keep going or with burns covering their bodies after being squashed next to the engine of the train which brought them across the channel. They have gone through significant psychological trauma and then arrive at school here, where their peers are concerned with who has the latest phone or what happened in the football last weekend. Many of these students are barely literate in their home language and yet we brandish them with the EAL tag, ensure that they know their alphabet and the days of the week and send them off into mainstream classrooms. Seldom are class teachers told their stories unless they specifically seek them out which results in the awkward scenario of a child being put into detention every night for not completing their homework when in actual fact they are in counselling or seeing a doctor because of their past.

This is the reality that must be remembered when reading the acronyms. Those three little letters might classify a student as EAL, but they don’t reveal very much more. It is necessary to remember that sometimes the data is just data and it can’t tell you about a person; about their past, about their life, about their story.