Pointing the way: Institute of Education focused on results
Torch may have been passed to the children of the founder but the fee-paying school remains top dog for Leaving Cert results
It’s back to school time at the Institute of Education on Leeson Street in the heart of Georgian Dublin as the signs are everywhere.
A young girl nervously asks the receptionist where her German class is on and there’s a helpful chap in a red jacket on the steps of No. 86 to point new students in the right direction.
The school officially reopens on September 2nd and enrolment is continuing, for students disappointed with their Leaving Cert results last week who are looking to repeat sixth year.
There are assemblies next week for its fourth, fifth and sixth year pupils, and a raft of language courses are already underway.
The premises were spruced up over the summer, with the builders putting the final touches to a new wing out the back. “We’re putting in more classrooms ...and there’s a new canteen. The builders aren’t out yet, they’re delayed,” says Úna Kearns, the Institute’s HR director.
We’re standing in the new study hall, which can accommodate 400 people and is also used for school plays, concerts, open evenings and graduations.
Úna runs the company alongside her brother Peter, who is managing director. Their father, Raymond Kearns, founded the institute in Dublin 50 years ago, and it has gone on to become one of the biggest and best known private schools in the country.
Raymond Kearns, then a maths teacher with Gonzaga College, started the school with just 10 students in 1969. This year, it will have more than 1,300 full-time day pupils ranging from fourth to sixth year across 35 classrooms.
More than 500,000 students have passed through its doors over the half century.
“In any given year, crossing our threshold is about 7,000 unique individuals” when you add in those taking part-time courses, grinds and international exams, says Peter Kearns.
According to Úna, some 225 students got 500 points or more in their Leaving Cert results last week, out of 650 who sat the exam. Within that number, 45 earned 600 points or more.
“Excellent, amazing results once again,” is how she describes the numbers.
Peter interjects via a speaker phone (he is on a family holiday in Spain) to say that 130 of the students earned 550 points or more. “That’s staggering,” he says. “Most schools would have maybe four or five [pupils getting those numbers].”
He takes as much pride in the fact that the “vast cohort” of its students earn between 450 and 550 points. “On average, they go up by about 70 to 100 points by coming into the institute,” he says.
It’s a bold claim. More gut instinct than a scientifically proven fact. “Junior Cert results typically would be a good indicator,” Úna chimes in. “I don’t know if we can say they’re getting better every year but they were exceptionally good results this year.”
The institute interviews about 1,100 people each year for 800 places in the day school. It’s a competitive process.
Recently, The Irish Times revealed that the State provided €90 million last year in subsidies to private schools, either via salaries, capital expenditure or other grants.
‘Not one cent’
“In our 50 years of existence, we have not received one cent, penny or euro from a State body. We are entirely self funded,” says Peter, adding that it has never sought any assistance either, allowing it to paddle its own canoe.
He declines to offer a view on the State’s subvention of many of its private sector rivals, saying only that “it’s interesting”.
The institute’s fees range from €5,595 a year for fourth years to €7,500 for fifth and €7,650 for sixth year. Not cheap by any means but not the most expensive fees in the market either.
For this, the siblings stress that their pupils get access to the best teachers in the country, and get the best education available.
While they are willing to talk up the excellent standards at the school, they are less forthcoming on its financial performance.
The companies that operate the institute are unlimited, with the result that the school doesn’t publish any financial information. However, a back-of-the-envelope calculation would suggest it earns more than €10 million annually from day student fees alone.
And the scale of the business can be gauged from the fact that it owns 12 buildings in central Dublin, having started buying up property in the 1970s.
This includes the seven adjoining Georgian properties on Leeson Street that comprise the main school and offer a combined 100,000 sq feet of facilities.
“From the front you wouldn’t realise how far back these buildings go and how high up these go,” Úna says, adding that the company is “always on the lookout for property” to meet its growing needs.
The institute employs about 120 teachers and 60 support staff . The pair were also coy about revealing teacher salary ranges, although they did confirm that teachers get bonus/incentive payments.
“They’d be very well paid,” says Úna. “They may have holiday homes in the south of France or Spain.”
“They deserve it to be honest...they’re absolute experts,” Peter adds. “They know the syllabus like the back of their hands and there’s a huge level of expertise. They’re giving a premium product and command premium rates.”
Úna says the company is planning to introduce a “more structured performance management system” this year for employees. Interestingly, the institute gets “feedback” from students on their teachers.
The institute wasn’t immune to the recession post the crash in late 2008 with a 10-15 per cent drop in student numbers over two to three years.
“We understood that it was a recession and we saw it as an opportunity for us to invest in education so we went on an extensive building project and we put money back into the business. We were able to avail of good tender prices and we were able to build and be ready for when the country came out of that cycle,” says Peter, adding that it invested about €12 million at the time in its properties.
They noticed a turn in the market in late 2015 and early 2016 when demand for places began to pick up again.
Many view private schools as elitist, dividing the haves from the have-nots in our society. The Kearns argue that they are catering for a need. With its focus on Leaving Cert years, every pupil at the institute is coming from another school.
“For whatever reason they are seeking out what the institute has to offer, whether that’s because they’re disaffected with their own schools or whatever,” says Peter. “The vast majority of students that come to the institute value education and their parents are making a sacrifice to send their son or daughter here.
“They are not necessarily coming from a privileged background. Far from it in actual fact. Well over half are people who are working hard to make sure their son or daughter gets the best education they can get.”
Úna chips in by revealing that “under the radar” it will offer free fees to 50 pupils via a scheme operated with St Vincent de Paul. “They would have motivated kids who want to do well but just don’t have the means,” she adds.
Ironically, none of Raymond Kearns’s children went to the institute, although its offering was different back in the day, focused on grinds and part-time study.
Peter and his brothers went to Gonzaga while Úna went to Mount Anville. “I did avail at Christmas and Easter of the institute courses and I would have been working in the institute when I was in my teens,” says Peter.
Given the high fees, are parents a head wreck for teachers at the institute?
“They can be demanding but we work with them and we have open communications with them regularly. They are very focused on education and sending their children to the institute is a definitive decision,” says Úna.
With an eye on the future, the institute has begun to spread its wings to the suburbs of Dublin by renting premises to run grinds in Marino, Malahide, Westmanstown and Stillorgan.
“So when students finish school they don’t have to journey all the way into Leeson Street to avail of the institute’s classes. It’s the convenience,” says Peter, adding that it charges €25 per grinds class.
It has also launched international courses, piloting IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education), which is run by the Cambridge examinations board in 160 countries, for fourth years.
“We’re very much in a global world now and having a qualification that is transient, that you can go anywhere with is going to become more and more important. It’s an international certificate and we’re rolling it out this year. We’ll see how it goes.”
They are also not ruling out going the whole hog at secondary level, from first year up to Leaving Cert. “There’s demand constantly,” says Úna. “It is something we are considering.”
Outside of the classroom it has extensive activities in sport, music and drama. “We do everything except hockey and rugby,” says Peter. They will celebrate the 50th anniversary with a concert at St Patrick’s Cathedral in December by the school choir. “The talent is unbelievable,” he adds.
Raymond Kearns, who will be 89 in November, hasn’t been involved in the day-to-day running of the school for more than a decade but it remains very much a family affair. In addition to Peter and Úna, two other siblings – Andrew and Edward – are members of the school’s board.
Their mother, Bríd, who is a former civil servant, has also been a huge influence in the background. The business has been handed over to children.
“I never wanted to become involved in the family business but my dad asked me to give a dig out for a few months and that became 18 years. But I love it,” says Úna, who previously worked at Bank of Ireland in HR, and for Diageo, and who has a list of university qualifications as long as your arm.
Peter previously worked for KPMG here, before heading to London and roles with Merrill Lynch and Bankers Trust. He took a year out to travel the world, landed a role with Macquarie in Sydney, before returning home to a position in Portobello College, which was formerly part of the institute.
Peter and Úna received recognition for their work over the past two decades by being selected as finalists in the industry category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
They participated in the CEO retreat to Hong Kong in May (before the protests kicked off), and will face the judges next month, with the winners due to be announced in November.
“We’ve told them that our father was the real entrepreneur. We’re just the children of an entrepreneur. It’s a great honour to have been shortlisted as a finalist given we’re celebrating our 50 years,” says Peter.
“We’re very proud of what our dad and mother set up. Dad came from very humble origins in Roscommon, left school at 15 and worked his backside off in the ’40s and ’50s and then built up this school over the years on the principle of delivering quality education. He was a brilliant teacher himself. Being able to continue that on has been incredibly rewarding.”
Being in a family business also brings a level of flexibility, which was noted by Peter, who lost his wife Emma to cervical cancer in January 2018, and who stepped back from the business to focus on helping her battle the disease and to be with his three daughters. “Úna basically took over the helm. That’s the advantage of a family business that doesn’t come with a normal corporate environment.”
Looking to the future, the pair see a growing appetite for education. Úna has the final word. “We’ve been here for 50 years and hope to be here for another 50 doing what we do best. No compromising on quality or excellence in teaching and education. Long may it last.”
Name: Peter Kearns
Job: Managing director, Institute of Education.
Age: Turned 47 on August 16th.
Family: Three daughters. His wife Emma died last year after a battle with cancer.
Hobbies: “Avid cyclist. I’m also trying to get back playing tennis.”
Something we might expect: He places great store in the value of a good education.
Something that might surprise: He cycled the Haute Route charity race from Genoa to Venice in 2016 with half a dozen pals, raising €200,000 between them for Ronald McDonald House, which provides supports here for the families of seriously ill children.
Name: Úna Kearns
Job: HR director, Institute of Education.
Age: 44 .
Family: Married to Matt with three daughters.
Hobbies: Walking, swimming, yoga and tennis.
Something we might expect: She too places great store in the value of a good education.
Something that might surprise: She never did her Leaving Cert. Instead, she did the matriculation exam at the end of 5th year at Mount Anville, filled out a CAO form and did well enough to gain entry to a BComm at UCD. “I don’t think anyone I know has done fifth year but not sixth.”