Grinding it out for four decades

 

PROFILE: THE INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION, LEESON STREET, DUBLIN:Its exam notes are famous, students knuckle down to get the points and teachers who don’t make the grade don’t last long – little wonder enrolments are holding up despite the recession, writes LOUISE HOLDEN

IN 2006 WE READ the obituary for the points race. For 20 years, this national blood sport had pitched stressed students against each other, slogging it out for maximum points in the furnace of the derisively-labelled “grind schools”.

Finally, in 2006, there was enough college to go around.Traditional educators had railed helplessly against the notion of plucking children from “well-rounded” schools and dropping them into bear pits like the Institute of Education on Leeson Street. Its location in the midst of banks, pinstripes and rush-hour traffic did nothing to allay a public perception of the Institute as a premature baptism in the rat race for unfortunate teenagers.

When the death of the points race was announced, many in the media and education pronounced, gleefully, that the Institute of Education and its imitators around the country couldn’t survive. The points race didn’t stay dead for long. And, in the meantime, the Institute has not suffered much at all.

In the year of its death, the points race took five per cent of Institute enrolments down with it. Since then, however, numbers have held steady. It turns out, there’s more to the popularity of this 43-year-old Dublin staple than the naked ambition of insecure Tiger cubs. Still taking 750 students into sixth year annually, and turning away a significant proportion, the Institute of Education is a desirable as ever. Numbers enrolling for fifth year have even gone up slightly in the past five years. At €6,950 a year, the Institute is not much more expensive than your average private school, and enrolment figures in that sector have not been damaged by the recession either.

So what’s the attraction? According to an insider, there’s much more to it than the famous “Institute notes”.

“There’s a nice environment in here for teachers and students,” says a member of staff. “Teachers don’t have to deal with issues of discipline or attendance. If a student throws a paper airplane, it will be his last. Students adore the strong discipline policy. Many have come from schools where they had to compete with real messers.”

Because the Institute is completely private, with all money coming from fees, it is not beholden to legislation such as that which allows students right of appeal on expulsion. Critically, the Institute can also jettison teachers that don’t make the grade, with no backlash from the unions. Refusing the Department’s shilling has its advantages. It’s an interesting spanner to throw into the current debate around State funding of private schools. For not much more than the fees charged by the average private school, the Institute has managed to paddle its own canoe, get some of the best results in the country and avoid what one member of staff described as the legislative “stranglehold” that other schools are caught in. On Leeson St, the market model is demand-led. As a result the Institute offers the largest range of subjects in the country and timetabling is not an issue. If you want to study French, German, Spanish, Italian and Irish you can – it’s another reason why many students leave their post-primary schools for the Institute.

On the minus side, the Institute doesn’t offer Transition Year (in fact quite a number of students leave their traditional schools to avoid it), doesn’t have playing fields or class productions of Macbeth, doesn’t take kids on ski trips to Italy or represent Ireland in the Model United Nations.“People are surprised to learn that Institute students do take part in extra-curricular activities,” says Peter Kearns, son of the Institute’s founder Ray Kearns. “We have a very successful debating team, our show-jumping team is winning all around it, we’ve soccer, swimming, basketball, golf, chess. There’s a myth out there in the public domain that all our students do is study.”

All that activity is reserved for the 250 fifth years however. In sixth year, extra-curricular activities are “not actively encouraged”.

“Sixth year is a short, intensive year. It’s just nine months. Students have a lot of big courses to study,” says Kearns. His father Ray is a former teacher of maths at Gonzaga College in Dublin. He set up the Institute of Education in 1969 as the next logical step after several years successfully sidelining as a maths tutor for students and teachers grappling with the New Maths syllabus of the day. His classes in Earlsfort Terrace were so popular that Kearns spied potential for a more permanent Leaving Cert tuition service.

Kearns remained in Gonzaga for 10 years while running the Institute, but when the points system began to bubble in the late 1970s, he decided to buy the building on Leeson St and set it up as a sixth-form college. “Going to the Institute” became a rite of passage for south side schoolkids in the 1980s and 1990s; whether for a short Easter course, a Saturday morning maths class or the whole shebang.

Now students come to the Institute from all over the country, but Dublin is still the main feeder. No single school stands out as a perennial supplier of Institute fodder, but according to a member of staff there are “trends” for the spotting if you’re inclined to notice them.

“You will see whole groups of students from the same school coming to the Institute on a Friday night for the same subject. At the end of the year, the teacher in their regular school gets great results. We do the work, he gets the credit. No one wants to blow the whistle.”

Peter Kearns says that “double counting” in the Irish TimesFeeder School lists sees regular schools getting kudos for results delivered by students after they left school and repeated at the Institute.

The result, Kearns claims, is that many private schools hit the top 10 with 100 per cent university transfer rates that are not just plausible. Meanwhile the Institute is languishing outside the leaderboard. It doesn’t seem to matter. After 30 years of hostility from traditional education quarters and teachers’ unions, The Institute has nothing left to prove. The students keep coming, keep paying and keep performing.

The school has weathered the death of the points race, the collapse of the economy and even the loss of former pupils Jedward to X Factor.

It’s likely to be around for a while yet.

INSTITUTE OF EDUCATION

CHALLENGES

HPATThe most prestigious course in the CAO handbook, medicine, no longer requires 590 points now that the HPAT entry system has been introduced. A traditional constituency for the Institute has been students repeating the Leaving in an attempt to get medicine

Leaving Certificate reformIf the threatened reform happens, it promises to usher in a host of new learning paradigms that move away from the exam strategising that has been such a strength of Institute teaching models

Higher third level feesMany attribute the growth of private secondary schooling to the introduction of free third level fees in the 1990s. If they increase again, will parents be able to afford the €6,950 price tag?

OPPORTUNITIES

Return of the points raceThe recession and changing demographics have prompted a swell in applications through the CAO. This will drive up demand and stoke up the points race again

A sleek business modelAs the cost of running private schools climbs and the threat of the withdrawal of state funding looms, the Institute is already financially independent and turning a profit