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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Early Childhood and School Education Funding


3.Funding in education

3.1Early Childhood and School Education Funding

Last update: 27 November 2023

Early Childhood Care and Education


Early Childhood

Outside of the Early Start programme in 38 areas of disadvantage, and the first two years of primary school (infant classes aged 4-6), all expenditure on childcare is administered by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA). Childcare related expenditure by that department in 2017 was €427 million which represented an increase of €120.5 million (39%) on actual expenditure in 2016. This included:

  • Grants to providers to fund the provision of additional places;

  • Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Programme (free pre-school year for children aged 3+);

  • A community subvention programme to enable disadvantaged families to access services at reduced cost;

  • Training and other supports.

The rates of support for Childcare Programmes vary considerably depending on the duration and frequency of care, and the eligibility category of the applicant. Apart from subsidies to early learning centres in disadvantaged areas to enable parents to access childcare at nominal cost, childcare below age 3 is generally paid for by parents.

However, major changes in childcare in the 2017 budget announced a radical redesign of how support is delivered to make quality childcare accessible and affordable for families in Ireland. The Affordable Childcare Scheme (ACS) provides financial support for parents towards the cost of childcare.  It provides a system from which both universal and targeted subsidies can be provided towards the cost of childcare. This new scheme replaces existing targeted childcare programmes with a single, streamlined and more user-friendly scheme that includes “wraparound‟ care for pre-school and school-age children. The ambition of this project is immense; its scope is matched only in size by its complexity. It is expected that this scheme will:

  • Improve outcomes for children, reduce poverty, facilitate labour activation and tangibly reduce the cost of childcare for tens of thousands of families;

  • Provide a universal childcare subsidy (averaging €80 per month for those attending 40 hours per week with registered child care providers) aimed at children aged 6-36 months. Catering for under 3s is the most expensive aspect of childcare for parents. About 25,000 children are expected to benefit from this;

  • Provide a targeted childcare subsidy at a tapering hourly rate for situations where the net family income is less than €47,500. The maximum subsidy will be paid in cases where family net income is below €22,700. The subsidy will cover childcare costs with registered childcare providers for children up to 15 years of age. Net family income is income after tax, pension and social insurance costs have been subtracted. The income threshold will increase where there is more than 1 child receiving childcare. The subsidy for a child receiving 40 hours per week childcare in a family where net income is below €22,500 could be of the order of €8,000 p.a. An estimated 54,000 children are expected to benefit from this, of whom 31,500 were already receiving some level of support previously.

The existing free pre-school scheme for children from age 3 to start of primary schooling will be continued. The families of over 80,000 children are currently receiving supports, including universal supports of up to €1,040 for children under 3 and up to €145 per week for children aged up to 15 in families that need it most.

In January 2010, Ireland introduced a free school year (38 weeks) for all children aged between 3 years and two months and 4 years and 7 months. This was extended from September 2016 to cover all children aged 3 or more, and the duration has been expanded to cover the period until they start primary school. The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme is a universal programme available to all children within the eligible age range. It provides children with their first formal experience of early learning prior to commencing primary school. The programme is provided for three hours per day, five days per week over 38 weeks per year and the programme year runs from September to June each year.

All children are eligible for two full programme years (Sept – June) of ECCE (76 weeks in total). Children must have reached the age of 2 years and 8 months of age by August 31st of the year of entry to the programme.


Pobal is an executive agency established by Government to provide a range of services to communities. Pobal has been designated by the DCYA to act as an agent in the administration of certain childcare programmes. These include the provision of capital funding, disability supports, and community childcare subventions. However, the funding for the Pre-School Scheme is processed directly by the department itself. A network of City and County Childcare Committees (CCCs) is funded by Pobal and provides local information and support to parents and childcare providers, as well as advising on gaps in services. CCCs provide information on services locally. There is no formal regional or local administrative structure for early childhood education and care.

In order to support children with a disability to access free pre-school, a major new programme of supports, the Access and Inclusion Mode (AIM), has been introduced. AIM is a programme of supports designed to ensure that children with disabilities can access the ECCE Programme in mainstream pre-school settings and can participate fully in the pre-school curriculum alongside their peers. AIM is a child-centred model of supports, involving seven levels of progressive support, moving from the universal to the targeted, based on the needs of the child and the pre-school setting. The model is designed to be responsive to the needs of each individual child in the context of their pre-school setting.  It offers tailored, practical supports based on need and does not require a formal diagnosis of disability (please visit

The model was developed and agreed by DCYA, DES and the Department of Health. Figures to the end of 2017 reveal that a total of 3,344 children participating in the ECCE programme have benefited from AIM; all activity under AIM is now funded by DCYA.

Early Start

The DES directly funds and administers the Early Start pre-school classes established in 1994/1995 in 40 primary schools in designated areas of urban disadvantage throughout the country. The Rutland Street pre-school in Dublin is also included. The project involves an educational programme to enhance overall development, and offset the effects of social disadvantage. The programme can cater for 1,650 children. Each Early Start pre-school child attracts capitation funding of €95.23 per annum. In addition, each full and half unit receives non-pay funding in respect of start-up grants for materials/equipment plus an annual grant to foster parental involvement. In 2017, non-pay funding amounting to €0.244m was paid out to Early Start Units.

The Rutland Street Pre-school Project

The Rutland Street Pre-school Project, established in 1969, is a two-year pre-school programme in a Dublin inner city community catering for 3-5 year-olds. Although not part of Early Start, it was used to pilot many of the approaches later incorporated in the Early Start project. In 2017, the Rutland Street Pre-school Project received €60k funding for non-teaching pay - and €62,580 for non-pay running costs from the DES. The staffing for the school is an administrative principal, 6 teachers and 5 child care workers for 95 children.

Primary Education

The primary education sector includes state-funded primary schools, special schools and private primary schools. The state-funded schools include religious schools, non-denominational schools, multi-denominational schools and Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium schools). For historical reasons, most primary schools are state-aided parish schools, although this pattern is changing. The state pays the bulk of the building and running costs of state-funded primary schools, but a local contribution is made towards their running costs. Teachers’ salaries are paid by the Department of Education and Skills, and the schools are inspected by the Department’s Inspectorate.

Although children are not obliged to attend school until the age of six, almost all children begin school in the September following their fourth birthday. Nearly 40% of four-year-olds and almost all five-year-olds are enrolled in infant classes in primary schools (sometimes called national schools). Primary education consists of an eight- year cycle: junior infants, senior infants, and first to sixth classes. Pupils normally transfer to post-primary education at the age of twelve.

The majority of primary schools are financially aided by the DES. Total enrolments in 3,246 state funded primary schools rose to 559,569 in September 2018, an increase of 4,318 or 0.8 per cent on September 2017, with a pupil:teacher ratio of 15:3. This includes mainstream and special schools. Approximately 27 private primary schools receive no state funds.

Enrolments in primary-level multi-denominational schools increased by 7.7 per cent while in Catholic schools they increased by 0.4 per cent.

Total enrolments in Catholic schools stood at 505,053 in September 2018, representing 90.3 per cent of all pupils, down from 90.6 per cent in 2017. Enrolments in primary level multi-denominational schools stood at 32,060, accounting for 5.7 per cent of the total (up from 5.4% in 2017). Church of Ireland schools had enrolments of 16,514 representing 3.0 per cent of all pupils. Other faiths accounted for 5,942 pupils, or 1.1 per cent.

Public expenditure in 2015 on primary education was €3.45bn current, and €287m capital, a total of 3.737billion. The number of students in 2015, averaged over the two school years, was 547,591, giving an average unit cost of €6,825. At the moment the capitation grant for primary pupils is €170 per pupil and the ancillary grant is €163 per pupil. The grant is higher for pupils with special needs. There is also a grant to assist with the purchase of books of €11 per pupil (€21 per pupil in a DEIS school).

Public expenditure consists mainly of:

  • Payment of teachers' salaries and special needs assistants directly by the Department;

  • Payment of capitation grants to schools towards heating, cleaning and other running costs, and an ancillary-services grant towards the cost of care-taking and secretarial staff. These are per capita grants based on enrolment. The normal capitation grant is €170 per pupil per year and the ancillary services grant is €153 per student. Significantly higher capitation grants are paid in respect of pupils with special needs;

  • Other sundry grants e.g., towards free books for needy pupils, towards the cost of standardised testing etc.;

There is additional funding for schools to assist pupils through operation of book rental schemes (Circular 0030/2015).

Each school is granted approved teacher numbers based on the enrolment in the school. See staffing schedule for 2018/19. There are additional posts in schools in disadvantaged areas, and for special needs.

Education staff pay and conditions are negotiated centrally by the Department and teacher trade unions.

Post Primary Education

At post-primary level, total enrolments stood at 362,889 in September 2018 – an increase of 5,481 pupils, or 1.5 per cent, on September 2017.

Enrolment in multi-denominational schools increased by 4,443 pupils, or 2.8 per cent while in Catholic schools, enrolments went up by 758 pupils, or 0.4%.

Total enrolments in Catholic schools stood at 185,963 pupils in September 2018, followed by multi-denominational schools with 162,624 pupils. There were 12,478 in Church of Ireland schools.

The number of post-primary schools has been gradually rising for the last number of years, going from a low of 700 in 2013 to 722 in 2018. This growth has been led by multi-denominational schools, which have increased by 8.7 per cent in the last 10 years from 321 in 2009 to 349 in 2018. In the same period the number of Catholic schools has decreased by 4.1 percent, from 361 to 346.

In addition to the number of schools increasing, the size of post-primary schools is also going up. The number of large post-primary schools (800 students or more) and the number of pupils attending these schools has risen by 83.3 per cent from 54 to 99 in the past decade, while the number of pupils enrolled in these schools increased from just under 51,000 to over 96,000. This trend can be expected to continue for the next number of years, as post-primary enrolments are projected to increase. The overall pupil:teacher ratio for all second-level schools in 2017-2018 was 13:1. These statistics refer only to schools aided by the DES.

€3.339bn was spent on post primary schools in 2015. 

The main outlay was as follows:

  • Current €3092.8m       

  • Capital €246.7m

Salaries of teachers and special needs assistants in second level schools other than vocational schools, are paid directly by the department. For vocational schools, 16 regional ETBs are given grants for teacher and school running costs. Each ETB pays for the staff and running costs of the vocational schools in their areas. 

With effect from January 2016, the Standard Capitation Grant for a secondary-school pupil was €296. Added to that is a School Services Support Fund payment of €206 per pupil. There are other, smaller grants for caretaking and secretarial services.

Financial Autonomy and Control

Early Childhood

All providers receiving funding complete a contract undertaking to comply fully with childcare, garda vetting, and other statutory requirements, and the Child Care Regulations. Under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for a range of child welfare and protection services, including school attendance and the inspection of early years services. Inspection of the educational aspects of provision is undertaken by the Department of Education and Skills in collaboration with TUSLA.

The Child Care Act 1991 (Early Years Services Regulations) 2016 govern regulation of early education services and are being implemented progressively since mid 2016 on a phased basis. The regulations govern such issues as staffing ratios, facilities, equipment, staff development, compliance with quality and curriculum frameworks, garda vetting, child protection, reporting etc. 

Under the regulations, all childcare providers registered with TUSLA must hold an a minimum Level 5 Major Award in Early Childhood Care and Education qualification, with Child Care Leaders holding a qualification at Level 6 (EQF levels 4 and 5 respectively). Grants are available to providers to support staff in gaining qualifications. As an incentive, an enhanced funding grant is provided to centres/rooms where staff have a Level 6 (EQF 5) qualification. There are rates of subsidy which must be provided to disadvantaged adults availing of the subvention programme. Other than compliance with these criteria, the childcare providers have discretion on the operation and expenditure within their service. Childcare is provided by providers in the private, commercial and community sectors. Each centre employs its own staff. Pay and conditions are not centrally negotiated.

Primary Education

Schools are required to spend their funds on the categories of expenditure for which they are earmarked i.e., capitation grants are for heating, cleaning and other expenses; ancillary services grants are for care-taking, secretarial and other supports etc. Teachers and special needs assistants are paid directly by the Department. Therefore, the extent to which schools could be deemed to have discretionary funding is limited. However, each school appoints its own staff (within the numbers approved by the Department), and is responsible for their assignment to duties across the school. The national curriculum is built on a set of learning outcomes for each two- yearly period, and schools have discretion as how to achieve these outcomes. The Rules for National Schools and various circulars from the Department, determine the general framework for the operation of schools. Pay and conditions of educational staff are determined centrally by the Department.

The Education Act 1998 sets out the duties of schools. Each school is managed by a school board of management with responsibility for the accounts. School accounts are also subject to public audit on a sample basis. Schools recruit and select their own staff, within the numbers approved by the department. The staff are paid in accordance with the framework of pay and conditions negotiated by the Department.

Post Primary Education

Post-primary schools are required to spend their funds on the categories of expenditure as above for primary schools. All second level schools other than vocational schools appoint their own staff, within the numbers approved by the department. In vocational schools, staff are appointed by the ETBs, and schools receive all their funding through the ETBs. All State funded schools are required to deliver the national curriculum, but have discretion as to how this is achieved. Students sit national examinations run by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). Apart from a number of required subjects which all schools must deliver, schools have discretion as to subject offer.

Each school is managed by a school board of management with responsibility for the accounts. School accounts are also subject to public audit on a sample basis. In vocational schools, all funds are allocated by the department to regional ETBs. While the ETB must spend earmarked funding on the services for which it was intended, it has discretion as to how to distribute these funds across schools. ETB accounts are submitted to the DES, and are examined fully by the department as well as being subject to public audit.  All ETBs have their own governance structures set out in legislation.


Early Childhood

Fees are determined by the providers apart from the State funded subsidy which must be provided for disadvantaged adults qualifying for the childcare subvention. There is no charge for the free pre-school year (from age 3 to start of primary school).

Primary Education

Primary schools in receipt of State funds may not charge fees. In practice however, the State grants are supplemented by substantial fundraising by parents and by voluntary contributions.

Fees charged by private primary schools are determined by the providers and information is not available on this. Private primary schools receive no State funds. Only 0.7% of pupils are enrolled in private primary schools.

Post Primary

Schools in the Free Education Scheme may not charge fees. However, schools supplement the State grants through parent fundraising and voluntary contributions.

In the case of the 55 schools not in the Free Education Scheme, the fees are set by the provider.

Examination fees are payable by students sitting the State examinations e.g €116 for the Leaving Certificate in 2018, and €109 for the Junior Certificate. There is a fee waiver for dependents of medical card holders which covers approx 32% of candidates.

Financial Support for Learners' Families

Early Childhood

This is set out in section 3.1.1. Grants are paid to childcare providers, not to families.

Primary Education

Grants are not generally paid by the Department to learners' families.  A Back to School Clothing and Footwear allowance is paid by the Department of Employment and Social Protection to certain welfare recipients at the rate of €100 for children under 11, and €200 for children over 11.

Under the DEIS (Delivering Equality of Inclusion in Schools), schools in designated disadvantaged areas are paid higher non pay grants towards their running costs, and have a more advantageous staffing ratio.

Post Primary   

Grants are not generally paid to families. All grants are paid to schools or ETBs. The Department of Social Protection pays a Back to School Clothing and Footwear allowance to certain welfare categories at a level of €200 per child aged over 11.