April 12, 2004

Grinding Away at our Education System

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Last Thursday night, mullets, frilly blouses, baggy pants, pointy suede Chelsea boots, blue mascara and shoulder pads were all the rage at the Point. Duran Duran packed out the place in homage to the 1980s. Thousands made the pilgrimage. Delving deep into their oeuvre, Birmingham’s finest New Romantics blasted out their tiresome inanities to the delighted faithful. Duran Duran you can take or leave but their image always propels me back to the mid 1980s and I become nervous every time I hear “Girls on Film” because it reminds me of that awful Easter panic and subsequent month of May before my Leaving Cert.

 

As the nights get brighter, spare a thought for the thousands of Irish teenagers who are now beginning the terrifying slog, trying to cram as much stuff as they can into their heads only to spew it out over a manic three hours on a morning in early June. Take a walk down Lesson Street this weekend and you will see hundreds of well-heeled teenagers streaming out of the Institute of Education fresh from three-hour crash-courses in every Leaving Cert subject. The same thing is going on in every city in the country. The explosion of grind schools is probably the most significant change to Irish education since the days I sweated and swotted. Of course, grinds like the Institute of Education on Lesson Street were open back then. (Every Leaving Cert student in my school had a copy of Leeson Street’s notes on economics; I would have struggled to pass without them!) However, recent figures indicate that grinds are now a necessity rather than an option.

 

According to a survey done in 2003 by the Student Enrichment Services, 64% of Irish sixth year students today are doing grinds. This is a shockingly high figure, implying that two thirds of Irish students believe that their normal teachers are unable to equip them sufficiently to excel in the big exam. (And likely to be higher as these are th eones who can afford to pay for grinds.) 45% of fifth years are also getting grinds and just over half of third years are being sent to these cramming hothouses to prepare for the Junior Cert. The courses take place mainly over weekends or during school holidays.

The battery hen approach to education is upon us.

 

The survey also found that girls in single-sex schools were the greatest users of grind services in the State with almost 66 per cent of them attending extra classes regularly. It might not come as a surprise therefore that girls outperform boys in the Leaving Cert. In fact, there is irrefutable evidence that girls not only do better than boys in exams but by an increasing margin every year.

 

Grinds are expensive. For example, the costs for the Institute of Education’s intensive revision course over Easter – five classes of 90minutes each every day for five days – works out at  €175 for one subject. There is a sliding scale thereafter; two subjects will set you back €295, three €375 and four subjects comes to  €445. So grinds cost roughly €20 – €45 per hour. Over the course of a year, with differing subjects and times available, it is quite normal for parents to fork out between  €2,000 or €3,000 on grinds. If even half of Leaving Cert students were paying for grinds at this rate of €45 per hour, it would make the industry worth €50 million annually.Nice work if you can get it and clearly the market is growing.

 

Forget the cost, what does the industrialisation of the education system tell us about the state of the teaching profession? This weekend , as the ASTI meet for their annual shindig, I wonder will they consider whether the profession up to the job? Why do we have such diverging attitudes of parents and teachers towards education? Does it reflect parents’ delusions about just how smart little Finn actually is?  Or spell the end of the era of teacher knows best?

 

It is clear that the grind school exists at the precise point where the parents’ and students’ realism about jobs, university and the points race deviates from the school’s Corinthian view that education is about more than exam results. Most people’s sympathy is probably with the more holistic view of the educator. But if the system gauges success by points, it is difficult not to conclude that the education system is letting many of our battery hen teenagers down. Similarly, no one can blame parents for trying to get the best for their children. The existence of grind schools, with their far superior teachers, beg the question whether the teachers’ unions are penalising their best teachers while protecting their worst. Anyone who has been to school knows that there are good teachers and bad ones. If you are lucky to get one of the better ones, the chances are you will do well while  bad teachers create bad pupils with disastrous results. If teachers and their unions do not weed out bad teachers, the market will.     

 

Speaking of the market, basic Junior Cert economics tells us that if there is such a huge demand for grinds there is a monumental failure in the system. There are three ways of looking at this failure.

 

The first one we can call the “no one is to blame school” which might understandably be argued over the weekend at the ASTI bash. This interpretation suggests that the schools are given one brief which is the broad education of our children, taking into account that there will be bright sparks and dunces in all schools and the system has to cater for all comers. But when you superimpose the reality of the points race’s much narrower parameters on this broad system, you squeeze the Leaving Cert bottleneck tighter.  The teachers are entitled to argue therefore, that one system cannot achieve two objectives.

 

The second way of looking at this is that our schools have plenty of bad teachers who are protected by the unions and ultimately it is they who drag the whole system down. Staff room gossip lends credence to this allegation, as does school children’s experience. The extreme interpretation of this is that the education system has been run to the benefit of the employees (the teachers) rather than the consumers (the children). The best arbiters of teachers are their student not their colleagues. Only they tell the truth. (In a similar vein, if a boss wants to know how good a manager is there is no point asking the manager’s golf club managerial peers – ask the workers who work for him or her.) If the conclusion is that bad teachers are being protected by bogus notions of professional solidarity, then the growth in grind schools is telling us that it is time to overhaul the teaching profession. 

 

The third interpretation is that grind schools are a reflection of teenage peer pressure and the deluded expectations of both parents and pupils. If you need expensive extra classes to keep up with others, then maybe you are not that smart. It is a bit like the Dad who hates to see his son dropped from the team; he will do anything to get the son on the first eleven. But possibly the only long-term solution is to accept that being brainy, like footballing ability, is largely a genetic gift and no amount of training will turn Finn into either Keano or Einstein. This interpretation suggests that maybe the normal teachers are doing a reasonably good job and the grind school is playing a duplicitous game, preying on the untenable ambitions of parents and teenagers.

 

There are many who believe that it is more about compromised good teachers protecting free-riding bad ones but, whatever the reason,  the rise of the grind school demonstrates that the school system does not work for well over half our students. How can we fix it? Well the grind schools are screaming “privatisation, league tables and accountability”. Yet there are many parents and pupils who would find it difficult to choose between the prospect of a “Japanese-style battery hen” system and a more holistic “Corinthian, academics-is-not everything” school. For the time being, spare a thought for the poor Leaving Cert students for it is the hardest exam they will ever do. Even if this year’s bunch are spared the droning of Simon Le Bon, it is still six weeks of hell between now and early June.  


  1. Jer Doody

    If so many students see private grinds as the only way to
    win the points race, then obviously they will try to obtain
    this advantage.

    The nature of many grinds schools is to teach by repitition
    and a deep understanding of the subjects is never achieved.
    I am a firm believer that learning just to regurgitate is
    self-defeating in the long run.

    If more students paid attention to current affairs issues
    on shows such as Agenda, then they may develop an
    understanding of how things work in the real world and use
    this to their benefit in various aspects of their life and
    livelihood.

  2. Mark Lundberg

    I did grinds in Leaving Cert Maths at the Institute Of
    Education in Leeson St back in the mid-80s. Before that I
    had failed Maths in the Inter and had learnt just about
    nothing after a boring year at Leaving Cert level.

    John (Jimmy) Brown at the IOE was a brilliant and gifted
    teacher with a knack for making mathematical ideas seem
    easy to understand. His classes were a pleasure and an
    inspiration as I felt the fog lift. Thanks to him I got a
    B in Hons Maths, which would have been an A, but for poor
    exam technique on the day.

    I am now a computer programmer in the finance sector, I
    use maths every day, and I love my work and my job. It’s
    no exaggeration to me to say I owe it all to Jimmy Brown.

    I can’t comment on other grind schools as I only went to
    the IOE, but I gained a far deeper understanding of Maths
    at the IOE than I did in 5 years at secondary school,
    which has benefitted me immensely in many aspects of my
    life.

    I just browsed the IOE website and I am happy to see that
    Jimmy Brown is still teaching there. Long may he continue.

  3. Elan Broadley

    im currently a student repeating my leaving cert and am shocked to find that there isnt a podcast avalable to assist teenagers in maths or any subject for that matter, this is a huge gap in the education system as it would give students the oppertunity to educate them selves in their own time any where any time. i know i would subscribe!

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