‘Grinds have become the equivalent of private health insurance’

The Secret Teacher: Education is now just another commodity-driven part of Irish life

In The Truman Show Jim Carey plays the part of a person whose life has been broadcast unedited around the globe for over 30 years.

The character himself, Truman, is the only person not in on the secret. When the question is raised as to why Truman never questions anything about his life, Christof, the programme’s creator, has a simple explanation: “We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.”

Looking at some of the new norms in education, there seems to be no shortage of Truman syndrome sufferers around.

Homework has been abolished in all but name. After-school study centres – typically at a cost of hundreds of euro – are all the rage, so the work set at school rarely reaches home. When did it become normal to pay for a child to sit at a desk to do their homework?


It is also common for the after-school study option or homework club to start very soon after the end of school. Has the school day not been long enough already?

Valuable interaction between parents and children is lost when the school day is extended unnecessarily, and when such a huge proportion of the student’s academic work takes place away from the family home.

I have no doubt that there are circumstances in which the after-school study centres provide an invaluable support and service, but surely such circumstances are not the norm.


Grinds and grind schools are thriving, and these are two very different beasts. If you are getting a grind you are probably paying for an extra lesson, either privately or in a small group.

If you are attending a grind school you are paying eye-watering sums to put in arduous hours, and you have probably suspended all your other interests for the duration of your commitment to the grinds school. There is no shortage of either grinds or grinds schools in this country.

Grinds too are a new norm. They are like many fashion items: people who aren’t in need of one at all have bought into the trend and are getting one anyway. The pressure on parents to finance these extras must be immense, and their becoming normalised must be making it difficult for parents to refuse.

We have a national health service, and it has long been considered acceptable to pay for private health insurance to access services and treatment more quickly.

As the money pours into extra tuition and grinds schools, surely they are simply becoming the equivalent in the education sector of private health insurance. Education isn’t a commodity but trends such as after-school study and grinds have meant it has become commodity-driven.

More problematically, too much of the money seems to be coming out of the students’ households and too little of it out of the Government’s coffers. When a country has a system of national education, surely it merits enough investment for its service not to need supplementing?

Teachers are central to how the education sector delivers this service, but today unrest in the profession is all but consolidated as a norm. There are problems both with recruiting and retaining teachers, leading to many real and worrying vacancies. This is despite the fact many teachers are struggling to secure work. Only in Ireland could we simultaneously have a surplus and a shortage!

Teacher shortages

We have an unqualified rate of pay which provides for when there is an occasional or non-regular need to use the services of an unqualified teacher. With the recent teacher shortage, there are thousands of unqualified teachers in our classrooms. At what point did children become any less worthy of a qualified teacher?

The alternative of no teacher at all would surely be worse, but neither scenario would be considered normal where the teaching role is properly valued. Why then did the Department of Education let it come to this? And, having done so, why isn’t resolving it top of their current agenda?

Correcting the State examinations used to be an attractive option for serving teachers, but this is no longer the case. Long before the crisis of examiner recruitment got widespread media coverage, efforts should have been made to engage with those most able and most suitably qualified for the role: secondary school teachers. Nowadays, non-teachers and trainee teachers are being hired to correct them.

State exams

Marking schemes generally offer possible answers to help guide examiners, but they are not exhaustive. But the option of accepting any other valid answer frequently appears, and rightly so. This requires a level of judgment only available to those with insider classroom knowledge and experience.

We are reassured that correctors are well qualified in the subject, which must surely mean simply in the subject area. This is not enough and should not be enough if we are to be fair to the teachers and students who have put years into preparing for this final assessment.

Allowing an individual who has not been on the journey in the classroom as an educator to assess the fruits of the collective labours of teacher and learner simply isn’t normal.

This year's courtroom battle with the State Examinations Commission is all the proof we need that things are no longer normal. The reality is someone got basic addition wrong and this error managed to slip through all subsequent random checks too.

No individual should be so overworked that this could happen. We must of course assume that the examiner had the competence to do the addition correctly, and that it was only other factors which contributed to the actual error. Nonetheless, not normal.