As exam pressure piled up on students last year, three teenagers were in the thick of it and pulling their hair out over the lack of online resources to help them.
In the end Jack Manning, now 17, Johnny Bell and Eamon Flannery, both 16, didn’t really need to worry. The trio amassed 30 A-grades between them, but the difficulty they had getting their hands on exam aids gave them an idea.
This year the now-transition year students decided to spin their exam success into business called JC-Learn, geared at helping junior cert students ace their grades.
The work involved drafting over 300 documents including notes, sample answers and tips – for which they charge a flat fee of €20 to access.
However the trio are far from the first group to think of making a buck from the roughly 110,000 students preparing for state exams.
Despite having plenty of competitors, Manning says JC-Learn stands above the competition as it gives students tips on how to ‘hack’ the exam paper – rather than overloading them with reams of facts.
“Our service helps students learn the exam more than the content. A lot of people spend hours revising notes, but if you have never tried a paper or looked at an A-grade answer, what use is revising all the chapters?,” he says.
“We think the studying for these exams is obviously about using good-quality notes, but you also need to know the exam papers and we think JC-Learn gives a mix of both.”
Since JC-Learn launched in December, its founders say over 1,400 students – out of the 60,000-odd sitting the junior cert this year – have signed up.
The most obvious thing working against it, however, is a lack of pedigree, something its large-scale competitors have often spent years drumming up.
Based in Dundrum, Ashfield College has been in the business of preparing students for exams since 1977, and it currently offers day-to-day tuition, grinds and crash courses in some subjects.
The college’s commercial director, Bronwen Daly, says students have access to teachers with years of experience correcting state exams, who know exactly how to tell students how to get top marks.
She adds that although the school is very exam-focused, it is a not a typical second-level education setup.
“It’s not a theatre-style environment, it’s very interactive where teachers are on a first-name basis with the students and everyone is on the same page.
“The nice thing about our school compared to one-on-one tutors is that students do have the classroom dynamic. Students are answering questions and bouncing off one another, whereas if they are in a one-on-one set up it can be very intensive.”
Access to that level of expertise and personal attention does, of course, come at a price. The college charges €695 for weekly evening grinds over a full year, while crash courses in certain subjects cost €160.
Network of tutors
Meanwhile, JC-Learn’s founders aren’t the only young entrepreneurs trying to take a chunk of the junior and leaving cert market.
The founders of the education startup UniTuition, which has received backing from the NDRC and Enterprise Ireland to the tune of €100,000, are also eyeing up the space with their peer-to-peer platform.
Founded by Sean Judge and Orla McCallion, the company is an online grinds service that matches college students who need help with tutors in return for a cut of the fee paid for the grinds.
The pair are now trying to replicate UniTuition’s model for the leaving cert and junior cert market with a new service they are calling TutorHQ, which had a soft launch this year.
Judge says he saw a gap in the market for a website the provides students and parents with access to a network of reliable and trustworthy tutors.
“What we found is that there are lots of different grinds services out there, but most of them are just websites with lists of tutors on them.
“Anyone is able to list themselves on these websites. There is no company standing behind them.”
He adds that all its tutors go through a strict screening process before being listed on the website and the service has an edge on bigger grinds schools because of the one-to-one experience offered by a tutor.
“Our tutors have all gotten As in the subjects they want to teach, or at least a B+, but those who got a B+ have to be studying the subject at a college level as well.
“We screen quite rigorously and conduct an interview with each tutor to make sure they are competent at communicating as well.”
Judge says his company, unlike major grinds schools which have “20 to 30 people jammed into a room”, allows students to get the benefit from in-home tuition, which can also be done under parental supervision. The price for hour-long lessons varies from €30 to €40, depending on the number of sessions booked.
No cars yet
As for JC-Learn, Manning says he is happy with the progress the company has made so far, even though he admits it didn’t achieve its initial sales targets.
“After I built the website, we had the first forecast of sales and we all thought we’re going to be able to buy cars by the summer.
“We thought we can roll up our sleeves and that since we had a great product, it was just going to be bought. That was not the case. So we had to focus more on marketing and getting the word out there.”
After a bit of a reality check in the early days, Manning says his team now has a better grasp of how quickly it can grow the business.
“Our initial forecast was probably a bit ambitious, so we changed our goals in January and we’ve exceeded those new user targets.
“The plan is to double our figures by next year and the long-term goal is to do a leaving cert version of the website so we could take customers from the junior cert right through to their last secondary school exams.”