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Life in Ireland

There are three distinct levels of education in Ireland: 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 EU.[1] There are Student Services Fees (up to €1,500 in 2009/10) which students are required to pay on registration, to cover examinations, insurance and registration costs.[2][3]

The Department of Education and Science, under the control of the Minister for Education and Science, is in overall control of policy, funding and direction, whilst other important organisations are the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Higher Education Authority, on a local level Vocational Education Committees are the only comprehensive system of government organisation. There are many other statutory and non-statutory bodies which have a function in the education system. The current Minister for Education is Batt O'Keeffe.



All children must receive compulsory education between the ages of six and fifteen years, and all children up to the age of eighteen must complete the three years of post-primary.[4] The Constitution of Ireland allows this education to be provided in the home;[5] 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[6] although a student attending a school which 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.

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. 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 enrol. Otherwise, the child must seek a place in a different school or wait until the next year to enrol.


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 using their own earnings and any child allowance they receive from the government. Parents with children under five currently receive the Early Childcare Allowance for this. This has been dropped in the 2009 Budget.

Primary School (Bunscoil)

  • Junior Infants (Naíonáin Sóisearach)
  • Senior Infants (Naíonáin Shinsearach)
  • First Class (Rang a h-Áon)
  • Second Class (Rang a Dó)
  • Third Class (Rang a Trí)
  • Fourth Class (Rang a Ceathar)
  • Fifth Class (Rang a Cúig)
  • Sixth Class (Rang a Sé)

Secondary School (Meánscoil)

Junior Cycle (Timthriall Sóisearach)
  • First Year (An Chead Bhliain)
  • Second Year (An Dara Bliain)
  • Third Year (An Tríú Bliain) - The Junior Certificate (Teastas Sóisearach) Examination is sat in all subjects (usually 10 or 11) in early June. Many schools have Mocks (also known as 'Pre's) to prepare students around February. These are not State examinations - independent companies provide the exam papers etc. - and are therefore not mandatory across all schools.
Transition Year (Idirbhliain)
  • Transition Year (Idirbhliain - optional in some schools, compulsory in others - Otherwise not available.)[7]
Senior Cycle (Timthriall Shinsearach)
  • Fifth Year (An Cúigiú Bliain)
  • Sixth Year (An Séú Bliain - The Leaving Certificate (Ardteistiméireacht) examination is sat in early June of this year. Many schools have Mocks (also known as 'Pre's) to prepare students around February. These 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:[8] 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 standardized tests are still performed. The primary school system consists of eight years: Junior and Senior Infants (corresponding to kindergarten), 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 the mid-19th century. They are usually controlled by a board of management under diocesan patronage and often include a local clergyman.[9][10] 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 many wanting them to be fully secularised.[11]
  • Gaelscoileanna are a very recent movement, started only late in the 20th century. The Irish language is the working language in these schools and they can now be found countrywide. They differ from Irish-language National Schools in that most are under the patronage of a voluntary organisation, Foras Pátrúnachta na Scoileanna Lán-Ghaeilge, rather than a diocesan patronage.[9] Nearly 10% of all school children attend Gaelscoils with 368 schools across the country making it the fastest growing education sector.[citation needed]
  • Multidenominational schools are another innovation. They are generally under the patronage of a non-profit limited company without share capital. They are often opened due to parental demand and students from all religions and backgrounds are welcome. Many are under the patronage of a voluntary organisation, Educate Together. At least one proposed school has been approved under the patronage of the regional VEC, who generally run vocational secondary schools.[10]
  • 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 1996 primary schools numbered as follows[12]:

Type of school Number Percentage of total (to 1d.p.)
Roman Catholic 2988 93.1
Church of Ireland (Anglican) 190 5.9
Presbyterian 18 .6
Methodist 1 <1
Jewish 1 <1
Muslim 1 <1
Multi-denominational 10 .3

Secondary education

Most students attend and complete secondary education, with approximately ninety percent of school-leavers taking the terminal examination, the Leaving Certificate, at age 17-19.(That is; at the 6th year at secondary school.) Secondary education is generally completed at one of three types of school:[13][14]

  • Voluntary secondary schools, or just "secondary schools", are owned and managed by religious communities or private organisations. The state funds 90% of teachers' salaries and 95% of other costs. Such schools cater for 57% of secondary pupils.
  • Vocational schools are owned and managed by Vocational Education Committees, 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.

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 Science 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 (unless the student has an exemption in one of these) and Civil Social and Political Education as well as a number of chosen subjects. These typically consist of one or both of history and geography and a selection from subjects including science, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Ancient Greek and classical studies, music, business studies, environmental & social studies, technology, home economics, materials technology (woodwork), metalwork, religious education.[15] Most students take around ten examined subjects altogether. Other non-examined classes at Junior Cycle level include Physical Education, Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) and religion.
  • The Transition Year is a one-year informal course which is 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 which 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%.[16]

Ireland's secondary students rank above average in terms of academic performance in both the OECD and EU; having reading literacy, mathematic literacy and scientific literacy test scores better than average. Ireland has the second best reading literacy for teenagers in the EU, after Finland.[16]

Further education

Further education was for many years the "poor relation" of education. There were many different, often poorly defined[citation needed], awards offered by a multitude of bodies, both ad-hoc and statutory. Typical areas included apprenticeships, childcare, farming, retail, and tourism. These are typically 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.

Higher education

Higher (or third-level) education awards in Ireland are conferred by more than 38 Higher Education Institutions including University of Dublin (Trinity College), Dublin City University, Dublin Institute of Technology, Higher Education and Training Awards Council, National University of Ireland, Waterford Institute of Technology and University of Limerick Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. These are the degree-awarding authorities approved by the Irish Government 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.

Some colleges are "constituent" or "linked" colleges of universities, whilst 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 and Dublin City University have completed a process of modularizing 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.

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.

All but two of the seven universities in the Republic of 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 student wishing to do an arts degree must apply to the college naming a viable combination of two "arts" subjects, such as French and Philosophy, and in the final year the student must choose one of the two to focus solely on. 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".

Ireland also has 0.747 of the World's top 500 Universities per capita, which ranks the country in 8th place in the world.[17] There are seven establishments of higher education in the Republic of Ireland which are ranked amongst the top 500 universities worldwide by the Times Higher Education Supplement.[18][19]

For medical education, please see under the article medical education.

Entry into Universities 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 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%.[16]


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:[20]

  • Holding EU nationality, or are a national of member country of the EEA or Switzerland or you 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 are not undertaking a second undergraduate course.

Students are required to pay a "registration fee" on entry to their courses. These charges cover costs just as equipment usage, administration fees and exam fees. Charges for 2008/09 were at average €850 per students, and have been raised to €1,500 per student for the 2009/10 school year.[21]. These charges have been labelled as "unofficial fees", and University Heads have admitted that "student registration charges are fees by any other name".[22]

There has recently been talk of reintroducing third-level fees with calls from DCU President, Ferdinand von Prondzynski, to do so in order to protect university funding. Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe confessed that there is a possibility of the reintroduction of fees in some form.[23]

See also


  1. ^ International Education Board of Ireland
  2. ^ "Undergraduate courses of not less than two years duration in colleges in List 1". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  Student, information for Undergradute students
  3. ^ "Fees FAQ". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  University College Dublin, Administrative Services - Fees & Grants
  4. ^ Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 (Section 17)
  5. ^ Article 42.2, Constitution of Ireland, 1937
  6. ^ Richard Burke, Minister for Education announced at press conference on April 5, 1973
  7. ^ Transition Year Support Service
  8. ^ Chapter 1, Primary School Curriculum, NCCA, 1999
  9. ^ a b Ownership of primary schools,
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ RTÉ News (31 January 2007) - Primary school principals gather in Dublin
  12. ^ [ Multi-Denominational Schools in the Republic of Ireland 1975-1995], Professor Áine Hyland, Paper delivered by Professor Áine Hyland, Professor of Education, University College, Cork, Ireland, at a Conference Education and Religion organised by C.R.E.L.A. at the University of Nice. 21–22 June 1996, Educate Together website, retrieved 18 October 2009
  13. ^ "Types of post-primary school". Citizens Information Board. Retrieved 7 September 2009. 
  14. ^ "Education Provision in Ireland". UNESCO International Board of Education. 2001. Retrieved 7 September 2009. 
  15. ^ State Examinations Commission - Junior Certification
  16. ^ a b c Measuring Ireland's Progress - 2007
  17. ^ World's top 500 Universities per capita
  18. ^ Times Higher Education Supplement Top 500 Universities Worldwide 2008
  19. ^ Ireland faces a university challenge
  20. ^ "Undergraduate courses of not less than two years duration in colleges in List 1". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  Student, information for Undergradute students
  21. ^ "Fees FAQ". Retrieved 2010-02-24.  University College Dublin, Administrative Services - Fees & Grants
  22. ^ "Universities admit student charge is an unofficial fee". Retrieved 2010-02-24. - Universities admit student charge is an unofficial fee
  23. ^ A timeline of the third-level fees debate

External links


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