Grind schools - a blessing or a curse?

Image Credit: Green Chameleon

Grind schools have become a popular option for students in the later years of second-level education, as they are known for producing high Leaving Certificate grades. However, the schools raise several questions regarding education equality and pressure. Sophie Finn investigates.

Grind schools have become a feature of the Leaving Certificate for many students, however, there has been much criticism levelled at the schools, mainly for creating a high-pressure environment and not incorporating a balanced curriculum, as many schools don’t offer social or physical education. The schools have also come under fire for perpetuating inequality in education, as the schools can be very costly and the grade average is higher to non-fee-paying schools. This begs the question, are grind schools a blessing or a curse for students, and wider society?

Although not all fee-paying schools are grind schools, all grind schools are fee-paying. The Irish Times 2021 Feeders School list indicates 99.8% of those who attend fee-paying schools progress to the third level, of those 86.7% achieve high point courses, in comparison to 53.1% of students from non-fee-paying schools. Data from the Higher Education Authority regarding enrolments in 2018/19 indicate high point courses such as medicine and finance have a majority of students from affluent backgrounds, only 4% of medical enrolments are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Twice as many third-level students are classed as affluent (20%), in comparison to those classed as disadvantaged (10%). TCD, UCD and RCSI have the lowest proportion of students from disadvantaged areas, 5% in each college. 

However, although those in fee-paying schools are more likely to secure a high point course, research from Delaney and Devereux indicates those from grind schools and Gaelcholáiste are less likely to complete a degree or perform well in third level, suggesting their school exam results were higher than their abilities. 

99.8% of those who attend fee-paying schools progress to the third level, of those 86.7% achieve high point courses, in comparison to 53.1% of students from non-fee-paying schools

Insofar as education inequality perhaps grind schools are only a symptom of the cause, helping to maximise the grades of those who can afford it, the issue may instead be with the broken Leaving Certificate system requiring such intense curriculums and enabling this kind of profiteering. Research from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in 2019 indicates teachers are unhappy with the current Leaving Certificate structure which they feel facilitates grind school type learning. “Teachers felt that current structures facilitated student emphasis on preparing for the exam rather than learning, leading to an emphasis on ‘notes’ and ‘grinds’ [private tuition] as ways of gaining valued points.” 

The exam itself may be “brutally fair” as outlined in the research from the ESRI, however, the type of learning it facilitates arguably benefits those who can afford grind. One teacher from a DEIS girl’s school said “It’s not continuous assessment and everything is based on one exam. The material being studied is often viewed as the subject matter for competitive effort between students. It is being increasingly subverted from its developmental role by the rise of grind schools and privately paid tuition in order to gain an advantage.”

The University Observer spoke to students who studied in grind schools to get a first-hand perspective of their experience. Colm Lenihan is a final year law student at UCD who attended Limerick Tutorial College for his Leaving Certificate year. Discussing his experience Colm said, “I was initially reluctant to leave the school I had spent the last five years in, but my parents persuaded me that the grind school would guarantee me enough points to get the college course I wanted to do, so I went along with their wishes.”

“The grind school experience was certainly unlike anything I had experienced up to that point... There was a very definite structure in place: hour-long classes (longer than usual) in blocks of two or three, from 9 to 5 with a lunch break at 1, followed by an hour break for dinner then mandatory, supervised study from 6 pm to 9 pm, or 10 pm for those who wished to stay longer.”

Colm outlined that he was disappointed at the quality of teaching “The teachers were billed as some of the best, if not the best, Ireland had to offer. I found this to be only partly true. I can only speak for the seven subjects I studied for my Leaving Cert, but of those seven I found only three (four at a push) to be of the level advertised. The remaining two or three fell far short… and this was not an experience unique to myself… I do not wish to slander their recruitment process as these were clearly outliers; nonetheless, it surprised me”. 

I am not convinced that the school was worth the very high fee charged, as I am almost certain I could have performed almost, if not quite as well, in my old school

Colm emphasised there was a large significance placed on “exam strategy and rote learning”, outlining, “We were taught to learn off large tracts of information and then apply it appropriately in the exam. Not every subject had the luxury of this system, but it was a very successful, if mildly cynical, tactic and I personally felt the quality of the information we were to learn was extremely high.” Colm outlined the school was not all work “One would think that any student attending such an expensive and results-driven school would be fully focused on their education, but this was not the case. However, we were all still children essentially, and what disciplinary issues existed were relatively minor… for the most part, the students were nice, the teachers approachable and the school seemed to run smoothly.”

When asked if, given the choice again, Colm would attend the school he admitted he was not sure. “On the one hand, it was heart-wrenching to leave the school I was very fond of, where almost all my friends went, and move to a city and live in a house with complete strangers. Additionally, I am not convinced that the school was worth the very high fee charged, as I am almost certain I could have performed almost, if not quite as well, in my old school. On the other hand, I did get more than enough points for my college course, so the grind school was officially a success, and I suppose when it comes to your future it is best not to take chances if you can afford it. I also made a few friends whom I count among my closest to this day, so perhaps I would not like to change anything.”

Colm said the main advantage was the teachers, “how those three teachers taught was extremely engaging, refined over many years, a schedule for the year mapped out with military precision.”  The information given was also of good quality “although there was an emphasis on rote learning, the quality of the information you were learning mitigated the mind-numbing task of committing it all to memory… We were taught exactly how to approach the Leaving Cert, tactics, what to look out for, trick questions etc. The grind school has spent years perfecting its craft and it showed, as they dedicated whole sessions to just exam tactics.” Other benefits included limited risk of truancy, specialised HPAT classes and for some students, supervised study. 

Colm outlined that the main disadvantage was the cost, structure of learning, and for the supervised study, as well as some of the teachers, “I do not wish to accuse the school of bad recruitment... no one is at fault - I just had a bad year for those subjects. It was extremely surprising to leave competent teachers in one school, go to a grind school and find me worse off in two of the main subjects. I had to get maths grinds on the side, as did a lot of the students in Higher Level that year”. However he outlined the teaching experience as “largely positive”. 

When asked if grind schools should be as prominent a feature in the Leaving Certificate, Colm was unsure. “Before I attended, my instinct was to abhor the idea that you could simply adopt a pay-to-win approach to the Leaving Cert, essentially buying your way into college by going to a fee-paying school that has some secret method of getting all of their students as many points as they need. To a certain extent, I stand by that, as the existence of the grinds, the school does make the playing field inherently uneven no matter what way you look at it. However, having attended one myself, I have a slightly different opinion. The grind schools may have experienced high levels of success over the years, but it is by no means guaranteed. As with everything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. 

The grind schools may have experienced high levels of success over the years, but it is by no means guaranteed

“In my year in Limerick, I saw rich parents throw underperforming children into the school in the hopes that the structure and teaching would improve their results. For some, this worked and more power to them. However, for those who didn't work any harder, results stayed the same. A grind school only works if you do. They cram a frightening amount of material down your throat and if you can digest it all you'll do very well and the school will take the plaudits. If it's too much material for your capabilities, or if you relax and expect your mere attendance will be enough to get the school to work its "magic," then the grind school will have been nothing more than an expensive mistake.” 

Alan* attended the Institute of Education, a Dublin based grind school for his final two years of school, he decided to study there due to the wider range of subject choices. “I wouldn’t have been able to do the subjects I wanted to do if I stayed in my previous school. It also allowed me to pick up an extra subject.”

Discussing his experience Alan said “I had a positive experience studying there, however, it was a bit of a culture shock initially coming from a normal school to one where the only focus is grades. It was a really good transition step between school and college as it had a college feel to it but still maintained the basic elements of being at school. Everyone is in a similar situation, as in they came there mostly to try and get good results and this meant there was a very focused and sometimes stressful atmosphere in the school. 

“In my personal experience, I found this great as I find it’s easier to try and work harder when others around you are working hard. However, it was very like college as there was no one making sure you had any of the work done and it was left completely up to you to keep track of how much work you were doing. This was a great learning step as it really builds up your independence when you are 16 or 17 if there is no one checking over your shoulder to see if you’re doing the work you should be doing.”

When asked if he would choose to attend the grind school given the choice Alan said, “I would definitely choose to study at a grind school if I had to do the Leaving Cert again. The two years I spent there were great and I don’t think I would have got the same results I did if I didn’t go there.”

“The main advantage of the school was the teachers and their notes. It makes it much easier to listen and take an interest in a subject when a teacher is passionate about what they are teaching and legitimately wants to be there. There are going to be bad teachers in any school but in the grind school, there was a much lower percentage of these teachers which was great. The notes were also great as they were really exam-focused which helped enormously when the exams came around.

“One of the biggest advantages was having a study hall in the school open all day. It would be very quiet in the hall and it would open first thing in the morning and not close until 8 or 9 pm. This was great as it meant you could go there whenever you wanted and have a really quiet space to study. In my experience, it was especially beneficial as I had a relatively long commute so the ability to stay for as long as I wanted in the evening and get all my work done before I got home was great.

“The main disadvantage was probably the time commitment and effort that I needed to put in when at the school. It was quite difficult trying to balance other things going on with the quantity of work I had to do as well as travelling in and out every day.

Asked whether he believes grind schools should be a feature of the Leaving Certificate Alan said “I had a positive experience at the grind school I went to but I don’t feel strongly either way in relation to this issue.”

The two years I spent there were great, and I don’t think I would have got the same results I did if I didn’t go there

There is no absolute answer as to whether grind schools are a blessing or a curse. Different students have different experiences, and although the ability to pay for better quality education is inherently unfair, as Colm said, attending a grind school does not result in “guaranteed” better success. Delaney and Devereux suggest increasing entry points for students who attend schools with advantages in exams. However, perhaps a better idea may be to restructure the Leaving Certificate exam structure should instead be redrafted to prevent the need for the type of learning grind schools facilitate and ensure it does not perpetuate inequality in education.

*Name has been changed