There seems to be a common denominator arising time and again when it comes to our secondary level education and exam system; it is not a case of success to the brightest but predominantly success to the richest. Educational attainment and progression often comes down to having the means to access private tuition and grinds schools in addition to a student’s secondary school education.
In Ireland, grinds are private tuition offered on a one-to-one level or in a group setting. This has become a lucrative industry in Ireland, particularly at secondary school level. The ‘grind’ school system is now a €20m industry.
When one looks at how we store and retrieve information from our memory (repetition and recall); it is easy to comprehend how a grind works. A grind(s) works by repeated repetition and individual testing; ensuring the long term memory becomes a rich pasture to plant and reap information. There is an ‘intelligence’ to rote learning and the grind system has perfected it.
This unfairness of our education system (largely due to the grind industry) has been highlighted again by the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC), who have called for the entry and selection test for entry to university medical schools (known as the Hpat) to be abandoned. In a brave move, the Institute says the test gives an unfair advantage to those who can afford expensive grinds. Gerry Flynn, the Institute’s president, said: ‘the available evidence suggests students who retake the test and those who attend expensive preparatory courses obtain a significant advantage over those who have taken the test for the first time and have not enrolled in the preparatory courses.’
It is often the case that a market is created for goods/services by convincing the consumer that they can not achieve a certain lifestyle without it. The grind industry which is the ‘child’ of a competitive points system has created students who are hungry for after-hours intense lessons, study groups, lectures, and online classes.
What is this costing the parent/guardian? At a minimum, 35 euros per grind and this figure can go up to 55 per grind (depending on the subject and teacher involved). At leaving certificate level a student takes up to 7 subjects; the maths is easy to do in this case as to what grinds for one academic year could possible cost for a parent/guardian. In fact, some grind schools charge up to 1000 euros for one subject for one year.
The teachers unions warn against buying into grinds when they consider that all they do is repeat what is going on in the classroom – something a student should be able to do independently at home during study/homework time. This is perhaps where the kernel of the issue lies: we are not promoting independent workers or thinkers anymore and perhaps it is sheer laziness that a student needs to acquire a private tutor to make them do their subject course work or pay a fee to actually study.
What is the irony of this grind debate? The majority of those taking private tuition are made up of those who tend to do well academically anyways who predominantly come from middle and upper-class backgrounds. The students who perhaps could do with extra educational support; those from poor socio-economic backgrounds and those with learning needs are not necessarily accessing grinds. They either simply cannot afford it or do not come from a cultural background
where additional support is seen as valuable. This same argument was recently highlighted by the The Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI).
If over 40% of students are taking grinds and the majority come from homes with a cultural background of educational attainment and ability; how does a student who comes from a starkly contrasting educational and cultural background compete with these students on the points ladder?
There are bodies that are looking to ‘balance the stakes’. ‘Engineers Ireland’ offer free tutorials for Leaving Certs and their courses are in demand. Who is actually taking up the offer of free tutorials would make an interesting read for those who continually seek to create a fairer and more accessible education system.
Will the Minister for Education follow through on looking at whether the Hpat should remain in existence and listen to Guidance counsellors who argue that this exam has done little to ease the CAO points pressure on students. The writing seems to be on the wall: those who can afford the expensive preparatory H-pat courses do well in this exam as opposed to those who can’t afford the luxury of participation. The Guidance Counsellors label this test as ‘a further obstacle to stated Government policy of promoting equality of access and opportunity’. The Institute is urgently calling on the Minister for Education ‘to examine the available evidence and request the medical colleges to abandon the practice of putting additional obstacles to students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds accessing medical courses’. It is evident that the Hpat has done little to widen access to the profession as the Department of Education and Medical profession hoped it would.
Prior to this growth industry, we all pretty much were on the same level playing field where our natural aptitude, ability and interests put us in our pre-destined place. The reality was students went into various jobs: teachers, doctors, nurses etc., or went into direct employment; without going through and being conditioned by this lucrative grinds machine. The reality is that on paper we are producing a high calibre of students but the reality is a student population less able to work and think independently.
The good news is that according to the latest OECD report on education in Ireland; compared to other countries, students who are educationally disadvantaged are more likely to progress to third level than those in other OECD countries. For example, 51% of second-level students whose parents have low levels of education go to third level. This is compared with an OECD average of 33%. Where the 49% go remains to be documented accurately.
Sometimes anecdotal evidence speaks louder than facts and statistics. Recently, one leaving certificate student told an honours English Secondary Teacher, as the teacher tried to promote dialogue and discussion in the classroom: ‘just give us the information or photocopy it. I need to get an A’. Yes, we have come along way!