Cramming schools: is it really education?

 

As the results of the "mocks" filter through, thousands of students will leave their own schools and enrol in so-called "grind" schools. A type of panic sets in as the deadline for the great State exam, the gateway to third-level education, draws near.

There is an annual student leakage from mainstream schools into private colleges, which can charge up to £3,000 per year for full-time courses. Yet nobody is monitoring this shift. There are no statistics to gauge the extent of this education "market". There are only estimates.

At the last count there were an estimated 20,000-plus pupils attending crash courses in more than 30 centres at Easter-time and Christmas. There is a huge trade in evening and Saturday morning classes also. Last year 4,500 registered as external Leaving Cert candidates. It's likely that most of these were full-time students in fifth- and sixth-year colleges. Students want to top up their schooling with extra tuition or they choose to take a subject not offered in the school. Or they elect to leave mainstream schools full-time for the final year or two to concentrate on getting points for college entry.

The growth of these specialist schools, which offer students intensive teaching and study time in order to achieve maximum results in the Leaving Certificate, continues while most State schools must operate without the benefit of fees.

Conditions for teachers in some colleges can be quite Victorian. "It's ruthless," says one teacher of her work in a Dublin grind-school. As a teacher, she says, "you have no rights. If you're sick you can be replaced unless you are valuable to the school. There is no comeback. You can have `off' days in a (mainstream) school but in the grind-school you hit it in overdrive and you have to stay in overdrive and it's relentless."

As a result, teachers in grind schools take very few sick days, she says.

Another Dublin grind-school teacher agrees: the system is "tough". Teachers are paid "a little above the average", generally getting between £15 to £25 per hour. Classes are 90 minutes in duration, compared with 40 minutes in the mainstream. Class size, depending on the subject, can vary. Minority subjects, such as applied maths, get from 30 to 50 students at a time; the bigger schools sometimes have classes between 150 and 200.

The production of notes is "very time-consuming", this teacher says. It's "survival of the fittest. It's customer-driven. If the kids like the teachers they are kept. The schools listen to the pupils and they keep teachers on that basis. It's rough." For the moment, teacher unions continue to turn a blind eye to grind schools, yet there are approximately 300 teachers working in Dublin alone in fifth- and sixth-year schools with no official union representation.

Joe Carolan, president of the TUI says: "We feel that there's almost an illusion about these colleges, that they work wonders. But our view is that if students work as normal in school there's no need for them. But students are free to go to them."

As to the charges that grind schools feed into to a fiercely competitive educational system, Diarmuid Hegarty, chairman of Griffith College, which is largely a third-level college, says colleges like his are not causing the problem. "It is the system that needs to be changed. There is no question but the emphasis of the points system has taken from the overall objective of the Leaving Cert. But it would be wrong to criticise the colleges that provide that service."

Hegarty says there has to be a shift from the pressurised points-driven system of entry to third level to a more student-friendly or consumer-led system. He explains that while third-level colleges continue to call the shots, the pressure to gain entry will remain "inequitable".

In the meantime, he says, "we must work within the system. The student as a consumer needs to have more power. "Nothing is to be gained from depriving students of support in their first or second attempt."

Grind Colleges are often criticised because they do not offer balanced programmes with important social, cultural and sporting elements. "I accept many of the criticisms that secondary teachers make of the effect of the points system on second-level education, which makes it the social arbiter of access to third level," Hegarty says. "But the point is not the presence of organisations which prepare the students. The problem is the system, and the solution is not to banish organisations that provide support to students. "We would have students coming of their own volition and trying to up their standard . . . All are trying to secure a higher level of points, many for medical colleges." According to John White, deputy general secretary of the ASTI, "our attitude is that they offer a very narrow, attenuated force-fed education that is notes-driven. Irish schools traditionally have tried to offer a balanced education to students - who aim, certainly, to achieve good education results."

He says teachers who are employed in privately-run colleges complain that for the most part "their rates of pay are very poor" and "they have no security of tenure". One of the hottest issues up for debate at this year's ASTI annual convention will again be the issue of teachers who "double-job" and work in fifth- and sixth-year colleges as well as mainstream schools.

The ASTI, which does not represent those who teach in these schools, has described them in the past as "unprofessional". The debate on this issue is likely to be heated again this year.

Teachers involved in crash courses, evening and Saturday classes are almost all full-time second-level teachers. According to one teacher, it's the best teachers who are sought out - and they are paid accordingly.