Primary school grinds: Parents turn to private tutors to counter learning loss

Some children may be lagging behind but will grinds put pupils under unnecessary pressure?

Private tuition – or “grinds” – are a familiar part of life for many secondary school students. But what about grinds for primary school children?

A quick look online will lead you to hundreds of teachers across Ireland advertising their services through websites such as SchoolDays.ie to parents of younger children.

Meanwhile, a number of businesses, including some international franchises, are offering extracurricular tuition to primary school children. Business, by all accounts, is brisk due in part to the impact of school closures and concerns around children’s learning loss.

However, the growth of these grinds poses vexing questions for some: do these services help children, or do they put them under unnecessary pressure? While they can provide vital supports, do they deepen inequality and give more privileged children a further advantage over others?

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School is Easy is an international franchise, originally founded in Canada, that has recently set up in Ireland. The company offers online, prearranged tutoring and a School is Easy app for on-demand tutoring, and uses subject experts to provide classes for primary, secondary and even third-level students.

Some of the children we work with are those who have been excluded from school and need tutoring straight away

Roy and Maria Lalor are the master franchisees in Ireland, and they recruit franchisees throughout Ireland who, in turn, recruit their own team of tutors.

"I'm a retired teacher who worked in further education for 30 years," says Roy Lalor.

"I worked in a PLC in Finglas because it was where I could do the greatest good and now, using this business, I can help learners. We can provide interventions for people with literacy or numeracy problems or a child going to first year who doesn't understand maths and may not be able to communicate their needs in a large class.

‘Early intervention’

“There are children who can’t manage in the one-size-fits-all [Irish] education system and, for a lot of them, an early intervention can make a big difference. Some of the children we work with are those who have been excluded from school and need tutoring straight away. And we can support families who are home-schooling their children but may not have the skills in areas like maths.”

Another organisation with a more established presence in Ireland is Kumon International. Originally founded in Japan in 1954, the programme sees children fill out daily numeracy and literacy worksheets. Children are expected to spend about 15 minutes on their Kumon work every day and each Kumon centre will tailor a programme for every individual child.

Kumon says that there are more than 70,000 students learning at 650 study centres across the UK and Ireland – and four million students worldwide – and that its programmes “aim to develop independent, advanced learners, with a positive attitude to study” and “reach a level of study beyond the international standard for their age”. The programme is developed for both academically gifted and academically struggling children.

‘Schoolification’

Dr Paul Downes is associate professor of psychology in education and director of the educational disadvantage centre at Dublin City University. As a member of the National Working Group on School Age Childcare, under the auspices of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, he has raised concerns about the "schoolification" of the after-school sector.

"The idea is that we should not go in the direction of more [academic learning] after school, because it puts pressure on the mental health of children," he says. "Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasises the need for children to have rest and leisure. It is really important to inculcate a love of reading, but overstructured time can risk [damaging] this love of reading.

Schools made heroic efforts but some parents or guardians just weren't comfortable or able to act as educators

“Overstructure in the after-school sector could bring a loss of initiative, and it’s much better that children learn through play and unstructured time. If a child is struggling at an individual level, there may be a case for non-intensive after-school support. The educational benefits for those students who are already performing well, however, is questionable because it impacts the self-directed element of learning.”

Downes says that a lot hinges on how often after-school, structured learning takes place.

“Not very intense individual support, perhaps once a week, is not academic hothousing, and there are literacy catch-up programmes such as Doodle Den that can be valuable – although a child’s potential tiredness needs to be taken into account.”

Pressure on families

The closure of schools during Covid-19 placed pressure on families – whether a stay-at-home parent struggling to act as a teacher or a working parent trying to balance their job with the demands of ensuring their children did their school work – and Lalor says that this has seen a rising demand for School is Easy’s services.

“People want their children to not fall behind,” Lalor says. “We are alive to the idea they could be doing too much, but nobody thinks twice if a child is good at sports and is being encouraged at it. We match the tutor to the child and find someone who can suit their needs. Schools made heroic efforts but some parents or guardians just weren’t comfortable or able to act as educators.”

Downes believes that there is an issue of equity at play and that children across Ireland would see more benefit from an extracurricular strategy that would make informal learning available to all – not just those who can afford it.

“Parents have freedom to invest their money in whatever ways they want, within reason and parameters. But a stronger, national after-school strategy focused on project-based learning around a range of themes including food, arts, outdoor education, where they can develop science or geography competencies, music, drama and more.”

Kumon was approached for comment.

Are we doing enough to make up for pandemic school closures?

In September, the Department of Education announced €50 million in funding for a new catch-up learning initiative.

Covid Learning and Support Scheme (Class) will provide additional funding to schools to hire part-time, qualified teachers to support pupils who have fallen behind as a result of Covid-19.

The fund supports the provision of additional teaching hours as well as opportunities for schools to share practice which is considered to be most effective in mitigating learning loss.

It has been welcomed by the Irish National Teachers' Organisation, although their general secretary, John Boyle, says that more resources will be needed.

However, Prof Judith Hartford and Dr Brian Fleming, both academics at UCD's school of education, say it is an inadequate response and that at least €100 million would be needed, "and it may need to be repeated over a number of years".

With concern about some children falling behind during the pandemic, could the growth of private, academically focused after-school programmes for primary children further widen inequality?

Dr Paul Downes of DCU’s educational disadvantage centre says that, while the initiative is an important start, it needs to be embedded as part of a wider strategic vision.

“The Class scheme should not just be a once-off but the first step towards a strategic vision for sustained after-school supports to help address poverty and social inclusion, and these should be varied and of a high quality. Children from marginalised backgrounds need to be afforded the same cultural opportunities and cultural enrichment activities,” he says.