English is a second language for 1 in 7 pupils. In primary schools. In England. Oh, and nearly half of them are in London.

Hi everybody! My second post has been up on MailWatch for ages with the headline 'Population growth and density. Should we be as frightened as the Mail wants us to be?' go and have a look.

I wrote this for MailWatch, but I don't want to hog the front page over there all the time, so I'll post it here first. I'll cross post it later. Enjoy!

'ENGLISH IS A SECOND LANGUAGE FOR 1 IN 7 PUPILS' shouts yesterday's Daily Mail front page. The story's on the website with the headline 'English is a second language for one in seven school pupils'. Wow. In 2006 the paper indignantly reported, 'Schools overwhelmed as 1 in 5 speak English as second language'. The front page must be about the good news that schools are less 'overwhelmed' because of the dramatic drop in the last couple of years.


The headline to that 2006 story was an out and out lie, as I covered in a couple of very early posts over at Five Chinese Crackers. The figures the paper used showed that one in eight primary school pupils and 'nearly one in ten' secondary students spoke English as an additional language. The paper justified making up a nonsense figure by saying that the government's immigration figures must have been wrong - even though figures for how many pupils speak English as a second language aren't immigration figures and they're measured by a different government department. Well, either that or the paper confused people from ethnic minorities with people who have English as an additional language, since there's a 1 in 5 figure for that. But the Mail would never falsely use figures to suggest that everyone from an ethnic minority doesn't speak English as a first language, right?

Fake headline aside, there's been a shocking rise since the paper last reported these figures that's worthy of a front page.


On April 30 last year, we were treated to 'One in seven pupils don't speak English as first language as students from ethnic minorities double in a decade'. The figures in that story were exactly the same as the ones for yesterday from the same DCSF stats, although they'd been mentioned again in a parliamentary answer. Still, the headline is based on actual figures, so it must be right this time.


The article itself reveals in the opening sentence that we're only talking about primary school pupils for the one in seven figure. Nowhere at all does the article reveal that we're only talking about England.

Another thing not mentioned explicitly by the Mail is this detail, reported in the Telegraph's version 'English not first language for one in seven primary pupils':
...these figures do not break down how many pupils cannot speak English at all, only whether it is their first language.
Instead, the Mail tries pretty hard to draw a connection between these figures and not speaking English at all, and includes a mention of the council with the highest percentage in the country and a case study of a school with a particularly high number in order to help us draw connections from the particular to the general.

It's curious that the Mail leaves this particular from being explicitly mentioned, since there are a couple of things that make both versions. There's this paragraph in the Telegraph:
Parliamentary questions have revealed that in 2004, 452,388 primary school children spoke English as a second language. By last year this figure had increased by 113,500, a rise of almost exactly 25 per cent.
which is curious, as it appears word for word in the Mail.

That paragraph is followed by this one in the Mail:
In secondary schools, the proportion of pupils who do not have English as their native language has increased from 8.8 per cent in 2004 to 10.6 per cent last year.
which appears four paragraphs later word for word in the Telegraph.

This could mean one of three things, none of which speaking very well for the state of journalism in the UK:

a) The Mail is copying and pasting from the Telegraph, adding its own detail and spin to take things a little further.
b) The Telegraph is copying and pasting from the Mail. If this one is true, it's an example of how the Mail sets the agenda for a lot of reporting.
c) Both have been copying and pasting from the same wire release.

Hilariously, the Mail includes the comment piece, 'A tower of Babel'. I say 'hilariously' because to justify a separate comment article, the original would have to be dispassionate reporting of news - but the original is reporting stats it reported almost a year ago and spinning them to look more scary. The paper is already doing something other than just reporting the news by including the article in the first place.

As daveyp points out in the comments on my last piece, "Arguments are won by grabbing hold of those symbols and images that most accord with your beliefs, choosing your target audience and then pushing all the right buttons. As the DM proves time and again!"

Quite. But isn't it the job of newspapers to report the news? 'News' meaning stuff that's new as opposed to stuff they reported nearly a year ago. And 'report' as in telling readers what is happening rather than exaggerating what's happening to make it scary.

I'm right naive, me.


uponnothing said...

Excellent analysis as usual. I notice that Mac also does a cartoon on this story as well. I still maintain that Mac's cartoons against foreigners could have the characters changed to Jews and would not look out of place in 1930s Germany.

Yakoub said...

Sorry for this unrelated comment (you have no contact details as far as I can see). Got a door to door caller here the other day (village near Huddersfield) trying to get me to subscribe to deliveries of THE DAILY MAIL c/o my local Spa. He began by asking me what paper I read. Discovering I was a Guardian reader, he explained that the powers above had told him G readers almost never switch to The Mail, thanked me for my time, and left.

Helen Highwater said...

I did some research at a primary school in Birmingham about the language spoken by the pupils, and as it was a predominantly Asian area, the children spoke an Asian language at home, and then English at school. They were quite capable of switching between the two, and in most cases, were born in the UK.

It's rather like a colleague of mine who was born in Wales, and didn't learn English until she started school. Now that there's a rise in Welsh-speakers, the "English isn't their native language" debate (ahem... I use that term loosely) doesn't just include "foreign" languages. How many of the "non-native English speakers" are in fact Welsh-speakers? Or even Gaelic-speakers? However, I don't even expect the Daily Fail to point that out because white British types who are non-native English speakers does kind of mess with their "we hate Johnny Foreigner" axe grinding.

Tom said...

"They were quite capable of switching between the two, and in most cases, were born in the UK"

Accords exactly with my experience in London - a large number of (5 year old) son's friends have at least one foreign-born parent, usually European. One of his best mates speaks Dutch. Two of his classmates at school were apparently swapping bits of Punjabi and Spanish a few months back. None of them has the slightest problem with English, and why would they?

Somehow I get the impression it's not nice middle class parents who happen to be born in Europe that the Mail wants us to worry about, but from my experience in London they're a significant proportion of the total.

His teacher is from New Zealand.

Dunc said...

But isn't it the job of newspapers to report the news?


No. The job of newspapers is to make money. They do this primarily by selling advertising space.

It's a common misconception. In fact, the idea that the job of newspapers is to report the news is simply part of their advertising, and no more reliable that the claims made by any other advert.

Five Chinese Crackers said...

Cheers Dunc. We know that - but we're cynics. Or something.