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Obituary: Raymond Kearns, astute businessman who founded the Institute of Education in 1969 and changed the face of private education in Ireland

Raymond Kearns, who changed the face of private education in Ireland, left school at 16 and then, in later life after he had taken a PhD in mathematics, went on to found Ireland’s first and most successful grind school, the Institute of Education.

rom rooms in an old convent on Leeson Street, which he leased in 1969, he gradually built a state-of-the-art education complex which has turned out generations of high-achieving students, whose parents had grand ambitions for their future.

It wasn’t a concept that was initially welcomed politically or by the educational establishment. But he was never deterred by the belief that private education confers advantages on the wealthy and privileged sections of society who could afford the high fees that go with rigorous results-based private tuition.

Nobody can doubt its success or the fact that it sends more pupils to university than any other Irish college.

Una Kearns, who now runs the establishment her father founded, told his funeral mass in Dublin last Wednesday that while he was often accused of pandering to the “privileged” in society, “he never made it public, but he also looked after those less privileged… he was always about giving back “.

Raymond Kearns, generally known as Ray, was a gifted maths teacher whose mantra to his teachers and students was “Hardwork + Motivation = Success”. He was known to listen outside the classroom doorways at what was going on inside, and rigorously question teachers and students about the benefits and shortcomings of the education system he pioneered.

“I enjoyed every minute of every hour or every day,” he told a promotional video issued to celebrate 50 years of the institute. “Happiness is doing something you like … all my life I was able to do something I genuinely loved.”

Despite some criticism of the “grind school culture”, he insisted that he never took money “under false pretences” and that he gave students a “ladder to success”. His philosophy of him was to “get the very best teachers and pay them the very best money”.

One of them, Denis Creaven, said Ray Kearns told him: “A boring teachers is a bad teacher and he never used the word ‘class’ – he would ask you if he met you in the corridor: Are you getting ready for the show ? “

The showman, Ray Kearns, was born near Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, in November 1930. He was the seventh of nine children of a small farmer father and schoolteacher mother. After his local national school, where he was particularly influenced by a maths teacher, Martin Coleman, he got a scholarship to St Nathy’s College in the town. But boarding school didn’t suit him. “I wanted freedom,” he said, and he left at the age of 16.

He got a job as a CIE clerk in Dromod Railway Station in Co Leitrim, where he was succeeded by future taoiseach Albert Reynolds when he moved to the rail company’s depot on the North Wall in Dublin.

Realizing the lack of employment opportunities without a qualification, he did his Leaving Cert at night and then went to University College Dublin in Earlsfort Terrace, where he was elected president of the students’ representative council “by a landslide” before qualifying with a BA and later doing the HDip.

While teaching at James’s Street CBS he successfully applied to the University of Pittsburgh in the United States, where he obtained a PhD in what was then known as “the new maths”.

Back in Dublin in 1961, he worked as a maths teacher in Gonzaga College, while giving grinds to teachers, many of them nuns, in the new maths curriculum at a half-crown a time, in rooms he rented in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Leeson Street.

Realizing there was a lucrative business giving grinds, he registered the Institute of Education in 1969 and from 10 students in one room he left the “day job” to expand the business. When a couple of derelict Georgian houses came up for sale on the other side of Leeson Street, he borrowed money to buy them and moved in in 1979.

His philosophy, “Give the best to get the best,” attracted talented teachers and over the years the student numbers expanded, bringing in millions
of euro in fees. The Christmas and Easter crash courses for students from all over Dublin attracted thousands more and sometimes Leeson Street became almost impassable when classes ended.

He was also an astute businessman with impeccable timing, buying and selling property and assets. Among his biggest deals about him was acquiring his own premises on Leeson Street and selling Portobello College Dublin, which he founded, to the US-based Dublin Business School in 2007.

His businesses have always been private and do not file accounts; and when questioned about his financial affairs di lui, he insisted that he plowed most of his earnings back into the business.

“He was a real people person,” said Denis Creaven, who knew him for more than 40 years. “Wherever he went he generated happiness, and because of his attitude di lui the institute was one of the happiest working places in Ireland.”

Ray Kearns married his wife Bríd in 1960. They raised their family in The Palms, a small housing development in Clonskeagh, Dublin.

Fr Noel Barber, who grew up nearby and concelebrated Mr Kearns’s funeral mass, remembered him as a larger-than-life character driving a yellow Mercedes car.

Monsignor Ciaran O’Carroll, also a family friend, said he was a man who followed his intuition.

“If you were with Ray Kearns at the beginning of the day you had no idea how the day would turn out, but at the end of the day you would remember it.”

His daughter Una recalled that he used to say, “the best thing about being a teacher was June, July and August”. This meant long family holidays in Galway, returning home in the evening “with Luke Kelly or Johnny Cash” blaring on the car radio.

“He never retired,” she said, and continued to take an interest in the business he had founded and where he was known by staff and students as “The Boss” or “Mr K”.

He had a great interest in Irish poetry and music, sponsoring landmark lectures on Patrick Kavanagh in the theater of the institute by Brendan Kennelly and more recently, in 2017, by the poet Paul Durcan.

He also contributed to the establishment of the Céide Fields museum in Ballycastle, Co Mayo.

Ray Kearns could “light up a room” when he entered it.

He loved entertaining and singing his party piece Dónal Óg or Patrick Kavanagh’s On Raglan Road, which was sung by Simon Morgan as his funeral mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin, ended.

In later life he moved to Dartry and became a member of Fitzwilliam Lawn Tennis Club, where he enjoyed swimming and the social life of the club. Raymond Kearns, who was in his 92nd year, is survived by his wife Bríd and their children Raymond, Edward, Andrew, Peter and Una.

In a tribute, the hearse carrying his remains passed down Leeson Street on its way to Mount Jerome Crematorium.

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