Education in Ireland
Department of Education
Department of Further and Higher Education
Minister for EducationNorma Foley
National education budget (2017)
Budget€9.527 billion
General details
Primary languagesIrish, English
System typeNational
Compulsory education1922
Literacy (2003)
Post secondary235,697
Secondary diploma89%
Post-secondary diploma47%

The levels of Ireland's education are primary, secondary and higher (often known as "third-level" or tertiary) education. In recent years further education has grown immensely with 51% of working age adults having completed higher education by 2020.[1] Growth in the economy since the 1960s has driven much of the change in the education system. For universities there are student service fees (up to €3,000 in 2015),[2] which students are required to pay on registration, to cover examinations, insurance and registration costs.[3][4]

The Department of Education, under the control of the Minister for Education, is in overall control of policy, funding and direction, while other important organisations are the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland, the Higher Education Authority, and on a local level the Education and Training Boards are the only comprehensive system of government organisation. The Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, a new department formed in August 2020, will create policy and control funding for third-level institutions. There are many other statutory and non-statutory bodies that have a function in the education system. As of 2020, Norma Foley is the current Minister for Education and Simon Harris is the current Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.


The first state-funded educational institutions in Ireland were established in the 16th century. The first printing press in Ireland was established in 1551,[5] the first Irish-language book was printed in 1571 and Trinity College Dublin was established in 1592.[6]

The Education Act 1695 prohibited Irish Catholics from running Catholic schools in Ireland or seeking a Catholic education abroad, until its repeal in 1782.[7] As a result, highly informal secret operations that met in private homes were established, called "hedge schools."[8] Historians generally agree that hedge schools provided a kind of schooling, occasionally at a high level, for up to 400,000 students in 9000 schools, by the mid-1820s.[9] J. R. R. Adams says the hedge schools testified "to the strong desire of ordinary Irish people to see their children receive some sort of education." Antonia McManus argues that there "can be little doubt that Irish parents set a high value on a Hedge school education and made enormous sacrifices to secure it for their children....[the Hedge schoolteacher was] one of their own".[10] The 1782 repeal of the 1695 penal laws had made the Hedge schools legal, although still not in receipt of funding from the Parliament of Ireland.

Formal schools for Catholics under trained teachers began to appear after 1800. Edmund Ignatius Rice (1762-1844) founded two religious institutes of religious brothers: the Congregation of Christian Brothers and the Presentation Brothers. They opened numerous schools, which were visible, legal, and standardised. Discipline was notably strict.[11]

From 1811, the Society for the Promotion of the Education of the Poor of Ireland (Kildare Place Society), started to established a nationwide network of non-profit, non-denominational schools, in part funded through the production and sales of textbooks.[12] By 1831, they were operating 1,621 primary schools, and educating approximately 140,000 pupils.[13]

In 1831, the Stanley letter led to the establishment of the Board of National Education and the National School system using public money. The UK Government appointed the commissioner of national education whose task was to assist in funding primary school construction, teacher training, the producing of textbooks, and funding of teachers.[12]

Hedge schools declined after 1831 as the Catholic bishops preferred this, as the new schools would be largely under the control of the Catholic Church and allow better control of the teaching of Catholic doctrine.[14]

On Saturday 10 September 1966, the Fianna Fáil Education Minister, Donogh O'Malley, famously made his unauthorised speech announcing plans for free second-level education in Ireland. Free second-level education was eventually introduced in September 1967, and is now widely seen as a milestone in Irish history.[15]

21st century

Students must go to schools from ages 6 to 16 or until they have completed three years of second-level of education. [16] Under the Constitution of Ireland, parents are not obliged "in violation of their conscience and lawful preference to send their children to schools established by the State, or to any particular type of school designated by the State."[17] However, the parental right to homeschool his/her child has met legal contests over minimum standards in the absence of constitutional provision for State-defined educational standards.

In 1973, the Irish language requirement for a second-level certificate was abandoned.[18] However, the Irish language remains a core subject taught in all public schools with exemptions given to individual pupils on grounds of significant periods lived abroad, or with learning difficulties etc.

While English is the primary medium of instruction at all levels in most schools across the state, in Gaelscoileanna (Irish-language schools), Irish is the primary medium of instruction at all levels and English is taught as a second language.

At third level, most university courses are conducted in English, with only a few Irish language options. Some universities offer courses partly through French, German or Spanish.


EQF 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


Education is compulsory for all children in Ireland from the ages of six to sixteen or until students have completed three years of second-level education and including one sitting of the Junior Certificate examination. Primary education commonly starts at four to five years old. Children typically enroll in a Junior Infant class at age four or five depending on parental wishes. Some schools enrollment policies have age four by a specific date minimum age requirements.


Most play schools in Ireland are in the private sector. Increasingly, children of working parents, who are below school age; attend a myriad of crèches, play-schools, Montessori schools, etc., which have sprung up in response to the changing needs of modern families. These operate as businesses and may charge often substantial childcare fees. Since 2009, in response to public demand for affordable childcare, children may receive two years free preschool the years prior to starting primary schools under the "Early Childcare and Education Scheme".[19]

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

Primary school

Primary school children usually start between 8:30 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. Children finish between 1.10 p.m. and 2 p.m. in Junior & Senior infants, while older children spend another hour in school and finish between 2:10 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Secondary school

Since 1967, secondary school education has been state funded in Ireland.[20]

Junior Cycle

The Junior Cycle is a three-year programme, culminating in the Junior Certificate examination. The Junior Certificate examination is sat in all subjects (usually 10 or 11) in early-June, directly after the end of Third Year.

Transition Year
Senior Cycle

The Senior Cycle is a two-year programme to prepare students for the Leaving Certificate examinations. The Leaving Certificate examinations take place directly after the end of Sixth Year, with the first exam being held on the Wednesday following the June public holiday (the first Monday in June).

To prepare students for the State examination in both the Senior (Leaving Certificate) and Junior (Junior Certificate) cycles, many schools hold Mock Examinations (also known as Pre-Certificate Examinations) around February each year. These "mocks" are not state examinations: independent companies provide the exam papers and marking schemes – 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 leaves to the 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:[22] 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 four and twelve although it is not compulsory until the age of six. A minority of children start school at three.

As recently as 2016, virtually all state-funded primary schools – almost 97 percent – were under church control, with approximately 81% under Roman Catholic control. Irish law allowed schools under church control to consider religion as the main factor in admissions. Oversubscribed schools often chose to admit Catholics over non-Catholics, a situation that created difficulty for non-Catholic families. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva asked James Reilly, the Minister for Children at that time, to explain the continuation of preferential access to state-funded schools on the basis of religion. He said that the laws probably needed to change, but noted it may take a referendum because the Irish constitution gives protections to religious institutions. The issue is most problematic in the Dublin area. A petition initiated by a Dublin attorney, Paddy Monahan, received almost 20,000 signatures in favour of overturning the preference given to Catholic children. An advocacy group, Education Equality, planned a legal challenge.[23]

Reforms in recent years, including an increase in the number of schools with multi- and non-denominational patrons, has meant that the number of Roman Catholic patronage state-funded schools has fallen to approximately 80%.[24]

Types of school

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

As of 2021 mainstream primary schools numbered as follows:[30]

Type of school Number (total: 3104) Percentage of total
(to 1d.p.) [31]
Catholic 2,750 88.6%
Church of Ireland (Anglican) 172 5.7%
Multi-denominational 150 4.8%
Presbyterian 17 0.5%
Inter-Denominational 18 0.6%
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 enter secondary school aged 12–13. Most students attend and complete secondary education, with approximately 90% of school-leavers taking the terminal examination, the Leaving Certificate, at age 16–19 (in 6th Year at secondary school). Secondary education is generally completed at one of four types of school:[32][33]

Gaelcholáistí are second-level schools (voluntary, vocational or comprehensive) located within English-speaking communities but in which the Irish language is used as the main medium of education. Approximately 3% of secondary students attend these 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. Although in 2012, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) found Ireland to be 7th in reading and 20th in mathematics in a world survey at the age of 15.[34]

As of 2021, mainstream post-primary schools numbered as follows:[30]

Type of school Number (total: 727) Percentage of total
(to 1d.p.) [35]
Catholic 344 47.2%
Multi-denominational 210 28.7%
Inter-denominational 151 20.6%
Church of Ireland (Anglican) 23 3.1%
Presbyterian 1 0.1%
Methodist 1 <0.1%
Jewish 1 <0.1%
Quaker 1 <0.1%

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.

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%.[37]

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.[37]

Third-level education

Main article: Third-level education in the Republic of Ireland

Special needs education

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2016)

The "Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004"[38] established the framework for the education of students with special needs.[39][40]

The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) supports students with physical and intellectual disabilities.[41][42] Some schools provide specific services to students with disabilities.[42] Students with dyslexia are offered additional supports where funding is available.

Special needs assistant

A Special Needs Assistant (SNA) is a teaching assistant who is specialised in working with young people in the classroom setting who require additional learning support due to disability.[43][44][45][46]

Areas of Disadvantage

This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2016)

The Department of Education and Skills identifies disadvantaged schools and has schemes in place to provide additional assistance to low-income families and families experiencing financial hardship. Available assistance includes an allowance for school clothing and footwear, assistance with purchasing school books (administered by school principals), exemption from examination fees for the Leaving Certificate and Junior Certificate exams, and a 'remote areas boarding grant' that facilitates students living in remote areas to attend secondary school.[47]


At primary level, schools are required to open for a minimum of 182 days and 167 at post-primary level. Standard Easter, Christmas and mid-term breaks are published by the Department of Education for the upcoming years.[48] Exact dates vary depending on the school. Generally primary and secondary get similar holidays. The year is broken up into three terms:

There is a mid-term break (one week off halfway through a term) around the public holiday at the end of October, two weeks off for Christmas: generally the last week in December and the first week in January, another mid-term break in February, two weeks off for Easter and summer holidays. Public Holidays are also taken off.[49]

In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Ireland, all schools, colleges, universities and childcare facilities closed in March 2020 and remained closed until the end of August/September 2020.[50][51]

See also


  1. ^ Henry, Mark (2021). In Fact An Optimist's Guide to Ireland at 100. Dublin: Gill Books. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-7171-9039-3. OCLC 1276861968.
  2. ^ "Third-level student fees and charges". Archived from the original on 18 April 2021. Retrieved 3 August 2013.
  3. ^ "Undergraduate courses of not less than two years duration in colleges in List 1". Archived from the original on 25 January 2010. Retrieved 24 February 2010. Student, information for Undergraduate students
  4. ^ "Fees FAQ". Archived from the original on 11 February 2010. Retrieved 24 February 2010. University College Dublin, Administrative Services - Fees & Grants
  5. ^ "Printing of Ireland's first book, the 'Book of Common Prayer', to be commemorated - The Irish times". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 11 April 2018. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  6. ^ Lenoach, Ciarán (31 October 2018). "New catalogue of books printed in Irish from 1571 to 1871 - RTE". RTÉ.ie. Archived from the original on 24 June 2019. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  7. ^ Tony Crowley (2002). The Politics of Language in Ireland 1366-1922: A Sourcebook. Routledge. p. 91. ISBN 978-1-134-72902-9.
  8. ^ Tony Lyons, "The Hedge Schools of Ireland." History 24#6 (2016). pp 28-31 online Archived 15 June 2020 at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Antonia McManus (2002). The Irish Hedge School and Its Books, 1695-1831. Four Courts. p. 31. ISBN 978-1-85182-661-2. Archived from the original on 1 August 2020. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  10. ^ Historians Adams and McManus are quoted in Michael C. Coleman, American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling: A Comparative Study (2005) p 35.
  11. ^ Daire Keogh, "Forged in the Fire of Persecution: Edmund Rice (1762–1844) and the Counter-Reformationary Character of the Irish Christian Brothers." in Brendan Walsh, ed., Essays in the History of Irish Education (2016) pp. 83-103.
  12. ^ a b "THE DARING FIRST DECADE OF THE BOARD OF NATIONAL EDUCATION, 1831-1841, John Coolahan, University College Dublin, The Irish Journal of Education 1983 xvu 1 pp 35 54" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 August 2020. Retrieved 24 June 2019.
  13. ^ National Schools in the 19th Century - Kildare Place Society Archived 23 June 2019 at the Wayback Machine,
  14. ^ Donald H. Akenson, The Irish Educational Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century (1970).
  15. ^ "Donogh O'Malley's speech announcing free secondary education recreated by son". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 28 September 2020. Retrieved 7 July 2019.
  16. ^ Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 (Section 17), archived
  17. ^ Article 42.3.1, Constitution of Ireland, 1937
  18. ^ Richard Burke, Minister for Education announced at press conference on 5 April 1973 Archived 26 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ "Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme". Archived from the original on 2 December 2013. Retrieved 25 November 2013.
  20. ^ O'Brien, Carl (14 February 2017). "Fifty years after free secondary education, what big idea do we need in 2017?". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 12 November 2020. Retrieved 18 November 2019.
  21. ^ Transition Year Support Service Archived 2 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Chapter 1, Primary School Curriculum Archived 10 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine, NCCA, 1999
  23. ^ Catholic Church's Hold on Schools at Issue in Changing Ireland Archived 7 July 2017 at the Wayback Machine The New York Times, 21 January 2016
  24. ^ "Statistics". Statistics Section, Department of Education. Archived from the original on 21 April 2021. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  25. ^ a b "Ownership of primary schools". Archived from the original on 9 April 2010. Retrieved 16 January 2009.
  26. ^ a b "Minister Hanafin announces intention to pilot new additional model of Primary School Patronage" (press release). Department of Education and Science. 17 February 2007. Archived from the original on 4 October 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  27. ^ RTÉ News (31 January 2007) - Primary school principals gather in Dublin Archived 13 February 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ "Gaelscoileanna with a Multidenominational characteristic spirit". pp. Gaelscoileanna with a Multidenominational characteristic spirit. Archived from the original on 4 October 2020. Retrieved 2 September 2016.
  29. ^ Carl O'Brien (12 October 2020). "Catholic symbols in State schools to be phased out". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 20 October 2020. Retrieved 19 October 2020.
  30. ^ a b 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. Archived 26 September 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ "Department of Education". Department of Education website. Department of Education. Archived from the original on 20 April 2021. Retrieved 20 April 2021.
  32. ^ "Choosing a post-primary school". Citizens Information Board. 30 July 2018. Archived from the original on 4 October 2020. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  33. ^ "Education Provision in Ireland" (PDF). UNESCO International Board of Education. 2001. Archived from the original on 4 October 2020. Retrieved 7 September 2009.
  34. ^ "Pisa tests: Top 40 for maths and reading". BBC News. 14 October 2015. Archived from the original on 2 July 2018. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  35. ^ "Department of Education". Department of Education website. Department of Education. Archived from the original on 21 April 2021. Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  36. ^ Ireland, Ecom. "State Examination Commission - Candidates". Archived from the original on 5 July 2009. Retrieved 28 August 2009.
  37. ^ a b "Server Error 404 - CSO - Central Statistics Office" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 7 June 2011. Retrieved 10 June 2008.
  38. ^ "Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004". Act No. 30/2004 of 19 July 2004. Retrieved 30 November 2016. Archived 1 December 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  39. ^ "Dealing with special needs". The Irish Times. 25 October 2004. Archived from the original on 19 November 2018. Retrieved 30 November 2016 – via HighBeam Research.
  40. ^ Coulter, Carol (14 October 2004). "Solicitor says parents of the disabled have right to sue". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on 19 November 2018. Retrieved 30 November 2016 – via HighBeam Research.
  41. ^ "NCSE - About". Archived from the original on 1 December 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  42. ^ a b "Rosmini Community School - Policy". Archived from the original on 1 December 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  43. ^ "Special Needs Assistants". INTO. Archived from the original on 1 December 2016. Retrieved 30 November 2016.
  44. ^ "EDUCATION Minister Batt O'Keeffe is warning that more special needs assistants (SNAs) will be axed in schools, on top of 200 positions already lost". 27 February 2010. Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  45. ^ "Special Needs Assistants Tell of Assaults by Pupils ; School Managers See Assaults by Pupils on SNAs as 'Part of the Job'". 5 April 2013. Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  46. ^ "SNAs Cap Lift Will See 400 New Posts to Help Children". 4 December 2013. Archived from the original on 30 September 2017. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  47. ^ "Financial help with going to school". Citizens Information. 3 September 2018. Archived from the original on 16 October 2018. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  48. ^ "School Holiday Dates - Department of Education and Skills". Archived from the original on 5 June 2019. Retrieved 26 July 2019.
  49. ^ Krimpen, Jeroen van. "School holidays Ireland". Archived from the original on 2 December 2016. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  50. ^ "Covid-19 - Statement from the Department of Education and Skills". Department of Education and Skills. Archived from the original on 17 August 2020. Retrieved 17 August 2020.
  51. ^ "Ireland: Schools set to fully reopen before end of August". BBC News. 27 July 2020. Archived from the original on 27 July 2020. Retrieved 17 August 2020.

Further reading

Primary sources