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Ireland's Education System
Levels of Education
Pre-School (up to age 4, approx)

Primary School (ages 5 to 12)

Post Primary/Second Level (ages 13 to 18 approx)

Vocational Education (including apprenticeships, etc.)

Third Level Education (University, Institute of Technology, Regional Technical College, College of Education for Teacher Training)
The Pre School and the Primary Education System
Many children enrol in pre-school prior to the age of five, with private Montessori schooling gaining in popularity in recent years. There are also a number of special schools for children of travellers, inner city children and children with special needs. Some grant aid is provided by Health Boards towards the running of these pre schools.

An Early Start programme was launched in 1995 with an aim of providing a formal structure for pre-schoolers. This was intended to be closely connected with primary schools and has been implemented in some schools. One side effect of this was to tighten up on regulations regarding the running of many home-based pre-schools, with the result that a number of these have now closed.

Most children will then move on to Primary school at about five years of age. The lower age of enrolment is four and the upper is six. This compares with an entry age between four and seven throughout European Union countries.

There are over three thousand primary schools serving five hundred thousand children throughout the country. The schools are staffed by twenty thousand teachers. Though this averages twenty five students per teacher, the reality is that many classes have as many as thirty five children each. This is balanced by the many one and two-teacher schools in rural areas. Indeed more than half of all primary schools have four teachers or less. In addition to these mainstream primary schools there are over a hundred Special Schools and a number of private primary schools. In recent years there is an upsurge in interest in Gaelscoileanna whose curriculum is conducted entirely in Irish.

Funding for the mainstream schools, including capital costs, salaries, etc., is predominantly from the exchequer, but is topped up by local contributions through parent committees. The private schools receive no funding from the state and the Gaelscoileanna must attain a certain size before funding is forthcoming.

The primary school curriculum is established on the advice of National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and is overseen by the inspectors of the Department of Education. The curriculum is much changed from what many people will recall and is based on the principles of " full and harmonious development of the child, with due allowances made for individual differences; the central importance of activity and guided-discovery learning and teaching methods; teaching and learning through an integrated curriculum and through activities related to the child's environment."
Post-Primary Education (Second Level)
Over three hundred and fifty thousand students receive post primary education in 450 secondary schools, 250 vocational and about 100 other schools. Nearly two thirds of students attend secondary schools which are still, by and large, owned and managed by religious communities. However, with the drop off in intake into these communities, the number of priests, brothers and nuns actively involved in teaching is a mere fraction of what is was in past years. Indeed many of these schools have no religious at all on teaching staff. Vocational schools are run by the Vocational committees and cater for a quarter of the post primary students.

Secondary schools receive ninety five percent of their funding from the state with the Vocational schools receiving ninety three percent. The remaining schools, including Community and Comprehensive schools are funded individually by the state.

Secondary and Vocational schooling is free, but the cost of books, local contributions and much of extra curricular activities is met by students and their families.

In some areas there is a waiting list for entry to secondary schools, with preference being allocated to students of the associated primary school and the siblings of past pupils. A scheme of entrance exams for assessment of incoming students is employed by many schools and is chargeable.
Junior Cycle
The curriculum comprises a three year programme culminating with the Junior Certificate Examination and a two year cycle culminating with the Leaving Certificate Examination. There is an optional Transition Year between these two cycles which can be taken by children of about fifteen years of age. Not all schools offer Transition Year.

The Junior Certificate would equate somewhat with Junior High in the USA or just under the GCSE Levels in the UK. The curriculum introduces the students to languages, including French, Spanish and German; the Sciences, including Physics, Chemistry, Biology; Business Studies, Domestic Science, Art, Music, etc. Junior Cert students must take Irish, English, Maths, History and Geography along with a European language.

The requirement for Irish is waived for children entering the country at more than eleven years of age. Furthermore, unlike in the past, failure in Irish does not fail the overall exam. This also holds for the Leaving Cert.

Transition year is aimed at getting children involved in projects in the community along with sampling a wide range of academic subject areas. This serves to help students mature and to select subjects carefully and with confidence for the forthcoming Leaving Cert programme.
Senior Cycle
The Leaving Certificate
The Leaving Certificate programme has become synonymous with the Points Race. Depending on the standard attained in various subjects, a points total will be earned. This total is compared with the entry threshold of the University, Technical Colleges and other third level institutions, and places allocated accordingly. Students sit the Leaving Cert at age 17 or 18.

The curriculum of the Leaving Cert follows directly from the Junior Cert, with a small number of subjects being discarded as the student begins to specialise. Students must take five subjects and most will take seven. These must include Maths, English, Irish, and a European language. Papers can be taken at higher or lower level. An Honour can only be earned by attaining an A, B or C in the higher paper. Grades are further subdivided, for example A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, B3 etc., for the allocation of points.

The Leaving Cert standard is approximately equivalent to the UK A-level or the first year of University in the USA.

Students sitting the Leaving Cert within the Vocational Programme will have studied five Leaving Certificate subjects, including two from a set of vocational subjects, a modern European language and three mandatory Link Modules.

The Applied Leaving Certificate is a two year programme of general and vocational education and training and caters for those students who do not wish to follow the academic path. While qualification for third level education cannot be attained by this means the student can proceed to many Certificate courses.
Further Education

Vocational Education and Training

Apart from the Universities and other third level institutions, a number of educational and training courses are offered through a number of vocational institutions.
Post-Leaving Certificate Courses
Post-Leaving-Certificate courses and off-the-job training for apprentices is provided in the Regional Technical Colleges, Institutes of Technology and in F�S Training Centres.
Apprenticeship schemes operate within a number of trades. Traditionally a young person entered apprenticeship with little formal second level schooling but now most apprentices will have attained Leaving Cert level. Development is through on-the-job training and is assessed between the trade, the Trade Union, F�S and the education sector.
The Youthreach programme provides two years work experience, job placement and associated education for those who leave school without completing their formal education. The scheme is typically operated by the VEC's and F�S.
Community Training Workshops
Community Training Workshops are for those in their mid teens to mid twenties with little schooling. The programme seeks to train people while improving their literacy or numeracy skills. The programme is run jointly with F�S and the Vocational Education Committees.

A number of other programmes aimed at specific groups within society are also in operation
Higher Education (Third Level)
There are over 50,000 students enrolled at University, 35,000 at Technical College and almost 1,000 at Teacher Training and other colleges.
The Universities
There are four universities.
  • The National University of Ireland, including UCD, UCG, UCC and St Patrick's Maynooth
  • University of Dublin (Trinity College)
  • The University of Limerick
  • Dublin City University.
UCD et al are more correctly referred to as NUI-Dublin, etc. UL and DCU are the former Limerick and Dublin NIHE's. Some of the Regional Technical Colleges are also likely to be granted University status in the near future.

Though the universities receive state funding they are self governing and largely autonomous
The Technological Colleges
There are twelve Technological Colleges of which the Dublin Institute of Technology with almost 10,000 students is the largest. It was formed through the amalgamation in 1992 of six colleges operated by the Dublin Vocational Education Committee. Students have their degrees awarded by Trinity College.

Further Technical colleges with 25,000 students, are located at Athlone, Galway, Sligo, Letterkenny, Cork, Waterford, Tralee, Dundalk, Limerick, Castlebar and Carlow. The Technical Colleges offer courses in Engineering, Computing, Science, Business, Catering and a wide range of other areas. Most courses lead to National Certificates and Diplomas. A number of Degree courses area also available.
Teacher Training Colleges
Training for primary school teachers is provided by five specialist teacher training colleges. These are: St. Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Church of Ireland Training College, Rathmines, St. Marys, Marino, Froebel College, Sion Hill (all in Dublin) and Mary Immaculate College of Education in Limerick. A training programme of three years culminates in the award of a Bachelor of Education degree.
Additional Information Further information on Education may be obtained from the Irish Government Website, Dept of Education section.