Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Education

Research Student: Robert Sharples

Photo of Robert Sharples

Identity and affiliation among young migrants in a South London academy.

Submission Date: September 2016

There are over a million young people in the UK who are believed to speak a language other than English at home. In the education system they are known as ‘EAL’, because they use ‘English as an Additional Language’, but this covers an enormously wide range of backgrounds, experiences and skills that these young people bring to school. I work with a specific sub-set of ‘EAL’ learners, those who arrive in the UK during their teenage years. These students are likely to have experience of other education systems, of formal and informal learning and of learning in faith and community settings. They are also joining UK schools at a particularly pressured time: approaching exams and the end of compulsory education, with the world outside school looming.

For my PhD I spent a little under two school years visiting classes in one South London secondary academy. I used a combination of participant observation, interviews, audio recording and photography to capture something of the complexity of daily life for these young people and their teachers. I found that experiences, people and places from far away in time and space were vividly present for the participants, and that personal history was hugely important to understand how different participants interacted with each other.

The work has resulted in a theoretical model that can account for the ways that participants bring the outside world into their classroom, and has implications for teaching and learning practice. Curricula at present emphasise the short-term goals of completing assessments and gaining qualifications, but young migrants often think on longer time-scales. Qualifications are important, but so is the learning they have done in other places, at other times and in other ways – which is rarely incorporated into the work of the school. Bringing that experience into the classroom may make a significant difference to how young migrants are able to succeed in UK schools.


My professional background is as an English-language teacher, in the UK and overseas. I have worked with migrants and refugees for some time, and with young people. This PhD is an opportunity to bring those interests together, and to benefit from the cutting-edge research on education, migration and language at Leeds.

What makes me passionate about my subject?

The PhD brings together three abiding interests – language, education and migration. The three are deeply intertwined, and there is a rich literature of academic research to draw on. In the public domain, though, these interests are often tied to the divisive discourses on immigration and economic policy. This is an area where clarity and solid data can make a real contribution to public debate.

In the education system, issues of language and migration are grouped together under the label ‘EAL’ (‘English as an Additional Language’), a specialist area that has been marginalised in policy and practice for several years. The work I do therefore offers real opportunities for impact – working closely with schools and specialist organisations to develop new ways of supporting often-marginalised young people.

What are my plans once I have completed my PhD?

After the PhD I will be looking for an academic position, where I can continue researching young people and their experiences of migration and education.

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