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Education in the Republic of Ireland

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Education in the Republic of Ireland

Education in the Republic of Ireland
Department of Education and Skills
Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan
National education budget (2014)
Budget €8.759 billion
General details
Primary languages English, Irish
System type National
Compulsory education 1922
Literacy (2003)
Total 99 %
Male 99 %
Female 99 %
Total 882,749
Primary 358,830
Secondary 389,353
Post secondary 134,566
Secondary diploma 89%
Post-secondary diploma 47%

The levels of education in Ireland are primary, secondary and higher (often known as "third-level") education. In recent years further education has grown immensely. Growth in the economy since the 1960s has driven much of the change in the education system. Education in Ireland is free at all levels, including college (university), but only for students applying from the European Union.[1] For universities there are student service fees (up to €2,500 in 2013),[2] which students are required to pay on registration, to cover examinations, insurance and registration costs.[3][4]

The Jan O'Sullivan, a TD for the Limerick City constituency


  • Introduction 1
    • Years 1.1
      • Pre-school 1.1.1
      • Primary School (Bunscoil) 1.1.2
      • Secondary School (Meánscoil) 1.1.3
        • Junior Cycle (Timthriall Sóisearach)
        • Transition Year (Idirbhliain)
        • Senior Cycle (Timthriall Sinsearach)
  • Primary education 2
    • Types of school 2.1
  • Secondary education 3
    • Types of programme 3.1
  • Further education 4
  • Higher education 5
    • Framework 5.1
    • Institutions 5.2
    • Fees 5.3
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


All children must receive compulsory education between the ages of five and sixteen years, and all children up to the age of eighteen must complete the three years of post-primary.[5] The Constitution of Ireland allows this education to be provided in the home;[6] this has caused much legal wrangling for years as to the minimum standards required for home education since the constitution does not explicitly provide for the State to define these minimum standards.

In 1973 the requirement to pass the Irish language in order to receive a second-level certificate was dropped[7] although a student attending a school that receives public money must be taught the language. Certain students may get an exemption from learning Irish; these include students who have spent a significant period of time abroad or students with a learning difficulty.

In the English-speaking regions of Ireland (most of the state), English is the primary medium of instruction at all levels, except in Gaelscoileanna: schools in which Irish is the working language and which are increasingly popular. In the Irish-speaking regions of Ireland, Irish is likewise the primary medium of instruction at all levels. English is taught as a second language in these schools starting mostly in the second or third year. Universities also offer degree programmes in diverse disciplines, taught mostly through English, with a few in Irish. Some universities also offer some courses partly through other languages such as French, German or Spanish.


Education is compulsory for all children in Ireland from the ages of six to 16 or until students have completed three years of second level education and including one sitting of the Junior Certificate examination although it is most common to start primary education aged four or five.

Children are typically enrolled in the Junior Infant class at the age of either four or five depending on the wishes of their parents and the policy of the school. Some schools require the child to have attained the age of four before a specific date in order to enroll. Otherwise, the child must seek a place in a different school or wait until the next year to enroll.


Pre-school is optional, in Ireland and takes the form of a number of privately run crèches, play-schools and Montessori schools, which children attend for one year or two, at ages three and/or four. Parents must pay to send their child to these institutions. From 2009 onwards children are entitled to a year of free pre-schooling in the year prior to starting primary schools under the "Early Childcare and Education Scheme".[8]

There are Irish language medium Naíonraí growing rapidly all across Ireland. Nearly 4,000 preschoolers attend 278 preschool groups.

Primary School (Bunscoil)

  • Junior Infants (Naíonáin Shóisearacha) (age 4-5/5-6)
  • Senior Infants (Naíonáin Shinsearacha) (age 5-6/6-7)
  • First Class (Rang a hAon) (age 6-7/7-8)
  • Second Class (Rang a Dó) (age 7-8/8-9)
  • Third Class (Rang a Trí) (age 8-9/9-10)
  • Fourth Class (Rang a Ceathar) (age 9-10/10-11)
  • Fifth Class (Rang a Cúig) (age 10-11/11-12)
  • Sixth Class (Rang a Sé) (age 11-12/12-13)

Secondary School (Meánscoil)

Junior Cycle (Timthriall Sóisearach)
  • First Year (An Chéad Bhliain) (age 12–14)
  • Second Year (An Dara Bliain) (age 13–15)
  • Third Year (An Tríú Bliain) (age 14–16) – The Junior Certificate (Teastas Sóisearach) examination is sat in all subjects (usually 10 or 11) in early June. Many schools hold Mock Examinations (also known as Pre-Certificate Examinations) to prepare students around February. The mocks are not state examinations — independent companies provide the exam papers and marking schemes – and are therefore not mandatory across all schools.
Transition Year (Idirbhliain)
  • Transition Year (Idirbhliain) (age 15–17) – optional in some schools, compulsory in others — Otherwise not available.)[9]
Senior Cycle (Timthriall Sinsearach)
  • Fifth Year (An Cúigiú Bliain) (age 16–18 or if transition year is skipped age 15–17)
  • Sixth Year (An Séú Bliain) (age 17–19 or, again, if transition year is skipped age 16–18) – The Leaving Certificate (Ardteistiméireacht) examinations begin on the first Wednesday after the June bank holiday every year. Many schools have mocks to prepare students around February. The mocks are not state examinations — independent companies provide the exam papers etc. – and are therefore not mandatory across all schools.

Primary education

The Primary School Curriculum (1999) is taught in all schools. The document is prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and is perhaps unusual in leaving to church authorities (usually the Catholic Church but not universally) the formulation and implementation of the religious curriculum in the schools they control. The curriculum seeks to celebrate the uniqueness of the child:[10] it is expressed in each child's personality, intelligence and potential for development. It is designed to nurture the child in all dimensions of his or her life—spiritual, moral, cognitive, emotional, imaginative, aesthetic, social and physical...

The Primary Certificate Examination (1929–1967) was the terminal examination at this level until the first primary-school curriculum, Curaclam na Bunscoile (1971), was introduced, though informal standardised tests are still performed. The primary school system consists of eight years: Junior and Senior Infants, and First to Sixth Classes. Most children attend primary school between the ages of 4 and 12 although it is not compulsory until the age of 6. A minority of children start school at 3.

Types of school

Primary education is generally completed at a national school, a multidenominational school, a gaelscoil or a preparatory school.

  • National schools date back to the introduction of state primary education in 1831. They are usually controlled by a board of management under diocesan patronage and often include a local clergyman.[11][12] The term "national school" has of late become partly synonymous with primary school in some parts. Recently, there have been calls from many sides for fresh thinking in the areas of funding and governance for such schools, with some wanting them to be fully secularised.[13]
  • Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge, rather than a diocesan patronage.[11] Nearly 10% of all school children attend Gaelscoils with 368 primary and post-primary schools across the country making it the fastest growing education sector.
  • Educate Together. At least one proposed school has been approved under the patronage of the regional ETB, who generally run vocational secondary schools.[12]
  • Preparatory schools are independent, fee-paying primary schools that are not reliant on the state for funding. These typically serve to prepare children for entry to fee-paying independent or voluntary secondary schools. Most are under the patronage of a religious order.
As of 2010 mainstream primary schools numbered as follows:[14]
Type of school Number (total: 3165) Percentage of total (to 1d.p.)(citation needed)
Roman Catholic 2,884 91.1%
Church of Ireland (Anglican) 180 5.7%
Multi-denominational 73 2.3%
Presbyterian 14 0.4%
Inter-Denominational 8 0.3%
Muslim 2 0.1%
Methodist 1 <0.1%
Jewish 1 <0.1%
Quaker 4 <0.1%
Other/Unknown 1 <0.1%

Secondary education

Most students attend and complete secondary education, with approximately 90% of school-leavers taking the terminal examination, the Leaving Certificate, at age 16–19. (That is; at the 6th year at secondary school.) Secondary education is generally completed at one of four types of school:[15][16]

  • Vocational schools are owned and managed by Education and Training Boards, with 93% of their costs met by the state. These schools educate 28% of secondary pupils.
  • Comprehensive schools or community schools were established in the 1960s, often by amalgamating voluntary secondary and vocational schools. They are fully funded by the state, and run by local boards of management. Nearly 15% of secondary pupils attend such schools.
  • Gaelcholáistes are the second-level schools for Irish language medium education sector in English-speaking communities. Approximately 3% of secondary students attend these schools. Please see Gaelscoileanna for the Irish language primary level sector. There are 368 Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcholáistí in Ireland.
  • Grind Schools are fee paying privately run schools outside the state sector, who tend to run only Senior Cycle 5th and 6th year as well as a one-year repeat Leaving Certificate programme.

In urban areas, there is considerable freedom in choosing the type of school the child will attend. The emphasis of the education system at second level is as much on breadth as on depth; the system attempts to prepare the individual for society and further education or work. This is similar to the education system in Scotland.

Most students enter secondary school aged 12–13 and complete their Leaving Certificate examination aged 17–19.

Some students opt for grinds to improve their grades.

Types of programme

The document Rules and Programme for Secondary Schools published by the Department of Education and Skills sets out the minimum standards of education required at this level. Examinations are overseen by the State Examinations Commission. Additional documents set out the standard in each element, module or subject.

  • The Junior Cycle builds on the education received at primary level and culminates with the Junior Certificate Examination. Students usually begin this at the age of 12 or 13. The Junior Certificate Examination is taken after three years of study and not before fourteen years of age. It consists of exams in English, Irish, maths and science (unless the student has an exemption in one of these) as well as a number of chosen subjects. This is typically a selection of subjects including Art, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek and classical studies, music, business studies, technology, home economics, materials technology (woodwork), metalwork, history, geography, Civic Social and Political Education (CSPE), and religious education. The selection of optional and compulsory subjects varies from school to school.[17] Most students take around ten examined subjects altogether. Other non-examined classes at Junior Cycle level include Physical Education and Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE)
  • The Transition Year is a one-year informal course taken by an increasing number of students usually ages 15 or 16. The content of this is left to the school to model on the local needs. It is compulsory in some schools, but optional in others and some schools do not have it. Students may attend structured classes, but do not cover material relevant to the Senior Cycle or the Leaving Certificate exams, and therefore students who choose not to do this year are in no way academically disadvantaged when entering the Senior Cycle. The range of activities in Transition Year or Fourth Year differs greatly from school to school, but many include activities such as work experience placements, project work, international trips or exchanges and excursions. Students may participate in courses such as creative writing, sailing, film-making, public speaking and so on, or enter competitions in science, fashion, motor sport and others that would normally be too time-consuming for a full-time student. Proponents of TY believe that it allows students an extra year to mature, engage in self-directed learning, explore career options and to choose subjects for senior cycle (the results of the Junior Certificate examination do not become available until midway through September, by which time students not taking Transition Year will already have chosen their classes and begun attending). Opponents believe that a year away from traditional study and the classroom environment can distract students and cause problems when they return to the Senior Cycle. They also believe that the activities undertaken in TY prevent some students from enrolling in this year, as they can be costly and most schools charge a fee of a few hundred euro to cover these activities.
  • The Senior Cycle builds on the junior cycle and culminates with the Leaving Certificate Examination. Students normally begin this aged 15–17 the year following the completion of the Junior Cycle or Transition Year. The Leaving Certificate Examination is taken after two years of study usually at the ages of 17-19.

Therefore, a typical secondary school will consist of First to Third Year (with the Junior Certificate at the end of Third), the usually optional Transition Year (though compulsory in some schools), and Fifth and Sixth Year (with the Leaving Cert. at the end of Sixth).

The vast majority of students continue from lower level to senior level, with only 12.3% leaving after the Junior Certificate. This is lower than the EU average of 15.2%.[18]

Ireland's secondary students rank above average in terms of academic performance in both the OECD and EU; having reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy test scores better than average. Ireland has the second best reading literacy for teenagers in the EU, after Finland.[18]

Further education

Further education was for many years the "poor relation" of education. There were many different, often poorly defined, awards offered by a multitude of bodies, both ad-hoc and statutory. Typical areas included apprenticeships, childcare, farming, retail, and tourism. These are typical areas of the economy that do not depend on multinational investment and recognition. There are many different types of further education awards, known as Post Leaving Certificates.

The Further Education and Training Awards Council confers awards in the extra-university system. Further education has expanded immensely in recent years helped by the institutions, and because of this the type and range of these awards have been formalized to restore confidence. There are two separate schemes enabling progression for holders of FETAC awards to Universities and Institutes of Technology. FETAC awards carry points that can be used to access higher education.

Holidays vary depending on the school. Generally primary and secondary get similar holidays. A mid-term(1 week off) around Halloween, two weeks off for Christmas: generally, last week in December first week in January, a mid- term in February, two weeks off for Easter and summer holidays. Primary schools usually give July and August off, while Secondary schools give June, July and August off. However with the exam years (3rd and 6th year) they have roughly two weeks of exams in June.

Higher education


EFQ level EHEA cycle NFQ level Major award types
1   1 Level 1 Certificate
2 Level 2 Certificate
2 3 Level 3 Certificate
Junior Certificate
3 4 Level 4 Certificate
Leaving Certificate
4 5 Level 5 Certificate
Leaving Certificate
5 6 Advanced Certificate
Short cycle within 1st Higher Certificate
6 1st 7 Ordinary Bachelor's degree
  8 Honours Bachelor's Degree
Higher diploma
7 2nd 9 Master's degree
Postgraduate diploma
8 3rd 10 Doctorate degree
Higher doctorate


Higher (or third-level) education awards in Ireland are conferred by University of Dublin, National University of Ireland (Cork, Dublin, Galway and Maynooth), Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Dublin City University, Dublin Institute of Technology, Higher Education and Training Awards Council, St. Patrick's College, Maynooth (Pontifical University),[19] University of Limerick and Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. These are the degree-awarding authorities approved by the Government of Ireland and can grant awards at all academic levels. The King's Inns of Dublin has a limited role in education specialising in the preparation of candidates for the degree of barrister-at-law to practice as barristers. For medical education, please see under the article medical education. There are seven establishments of higher education in Ireland ranked among the top 500 universities worldwide by the Times Higher Education Supplement.[20][21]

Some colleges are "constituent" or "linked" colleges of universities, while others are designated institutions of the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. The latter include the Institutes of Technology, Colleges of Education, and other independent colleges. Some colleges have "delegated authority" from the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, this allows them to confer and validate awards in their own name.

Some institutions such as the University of Limerick, Dublin Institute of Technology and Dublin City University (DCU) have completed a process of modularising their courses (others are still in a transition phase), mostly using the ECTS. The Bologna process and applied research are the current concerns of national educational policy, additional concerns include the structures of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin. Since the mid-2000s, a number of Institutes of Technology have applied for university designation, including Dublin Institute of Technology, Cork and Waterford.

The Marks & Standards document, offered by most institutions, can be consulted for information on the range and criteria set down for awards, while programme specifications offer additional information. In contrast to practice in the rest of the education system, entry tends to be highly competitive for school leavers; the so-called "Points Race". In 2001 the percentage of school leavers transferring to third level exceeded 50% for the first time, as of 2005 it is in excess of 55% and expected to grow at approximately 1% per annum for the next decade.

There are over 25 third-level courses at graduate and postgraduate level offered through the Irish language. Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge is the Irish language Department of the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) and it has different off-campus centres throughout the Gaeltacht regions. Dublin City University has an Irish language department called Fiontar, University College Dublin (UCD), Dublin Institute of Technology and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) also offer similar courses.

All but two of the seven universities in Ireland offer "open" (omnibus entry) Bachelor of Arts degrees through the CAO where the student can choose their specialisation after their first year of study. The two universities that do not offer "open" (omnibus entry) arts degrees, (Trinity College, Dublin and Dublin City University) do still offer Bachelor of Arts degrees in specific areas of study such as Drama Studies, Journalism, Latin, History, Japanese and International Relations.

In one, Trinity College, Dublin, the applicants wishing to read an Arts degree may apply to the college to read a combination of two subjects, such as French and Philosophy - which the student may continue to read jointly or with focus on one. Dublin City University's de facto omnibus entry arts degree is offered by St. Patrick's College of Education (a college of DCU) and is titled "BA in Humanities", All Hallows College (a college of DCU) offer BA in Humanities, Theology Pastoral Care, and English.

Entry into Higher education institutions is normally done through the CAO or Central Applications Office. In this way, students wishing to enter university apply to the CAO rather than the individual university. Places in courses are usually awarded based on results in the Leaving Certificate Examination or any international equivalent. Each university has a minimum entry requirement, usually requiring a pass grade in either English or Irish, as well as maths. Some also require a pass grade in a modern continental European language (French, German, Spanish or Italian). Each individual course has further entry requirements, for example, science courses usually require a certain grade in one or two sciences. The student must also achieve the number of points required for the course under the points system. However, universities also have systems in place for accepting mature students, and students who have successfully completed a Post Leaving Certificate or Further Education course.

Entry into third-level is generally very high in Ireland, and among young adults (those aged 25 to 34), 41.6% of them have attained third-level degrees—the second highest level in the EU after Cyprus, and substantially ahead of the average of 29.1%.[18]


Under the "Free Fees Initiative" the Exchequer will pay the tuition fees of students who meet relevant course, nationality and residence requirements as set down under the initiative. These requirements include:[3]

  • Holding EU nationality, or are a national of member country of the European Economic Area or Switzerland, or those who have been granted official refugee status.
  • Having been a resident in an EU Member State for at least three of the five years preceding entry to the course.
  • Are not undertaking a second undergraduate course.

Students are required to pay a "registration fee" on entry to their courses. These charges cover costs such as equipment usage, administration fees and exam fees. Charges for 2008/09 were on average €850 per student, but was raised to €1,500 per student for the 2009/10 school year.[4] These charges have been labelled as "unofficial fees", and University Heads have admitted that "student registration charges are fees by any other name".[22] In 2011, after large annual increases, the Registration Fee was abolished and replaced with a Student Contribution. For the school year 2013/2014 this fee stands at €2,500, with plans to raise it to €3,000 by 2015. The fee for the school year 2014/2015 will be €2,750 and €3,000 for the year 2015/2016.

See also


  1. ^ International Education Board of Ireland
  2. ^ Citizenship Information
  3. ^ a b "Undergraduate courses of not less than two years duration in colleges in List 1". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  Student, information for Undergradute students
  4. ^ a b "Fees FAQ". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  University College Dublin, Administrative Services - Fees & Grants
  5. ^ Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 (Section 17), archived
  6. ^ Article 42.2, Constitution of Ireland, 1937
  7. ^ Richard Burke, Minister for Education announced at press conference on 5 April 1973
  8. ^
  9. ^ Transition Year Support Service
  10. ^ Chapter 1, Primary School Curriculum, NCCA, 1999
  11. ^ a b Ownership of primary schools,
  12. ^ a b 17 February 2007 - Minister Hanafin announces intention to pilot new additional model of Primary School Patronage, Department of Education and Science press release, 17 February 2007
  13. ^ Primary school principals gather in DublinRTÉ News (31 January 2007) -
  14. ^ Mainstream National Primary Schools 2010-2011 School Year. Enrolment as on 30 September 2010, Statistic delivered by Department of Education and Skills website. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  15. ^ "Types of post-primary school". Citizens Information Board. Retrieved 7 September 2009. 
  16. ^ "Education Provision in Ireland". UNESCO International Board of Education. 2001. Retrieved 7 September 2009. 
  17. ^ State Examinations Commission - Junior Certification
  18. ^ a b c Measuring Ireland's Progress - 2007
  19. ^ Final report on alignment of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth awards made in Ireland to the National Framework of Qualifications, September 2011.
  20. ^ Times Higher Education Supplement Top 500 Universities Worldwide 2008
  21. ^ Ireland faces a university challenge
  22. ^ "Universities admit student charge is an unofficial fee". Irish Independent. 29 January 2010. Retrieved 2010-02-24. - Universities admit student charge is an unofficial fee

External links

  • Irish Second-Level Students' Union, Connecting Students. Giving Students a Voice.
  • Higher Education Authority, Ireland
  • International Education Board Ireland
  • National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, Ireland
  • National Qualifications Authority of Ireland
  • The Sunday Times University Guide 2004 - Ireland
  • - Ireland's National Education Database
  • - Online Resource for Parents and Teachers in Ireland
  • - Historical Information about Irish schools
  • The Teaching Council of Ireland
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