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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Fundamental principles and national policies


2.Organisation and governance

2.1Fundamental principles and national policies

Last update: 27 November 2023

Fundamental Principles and National Policies

The overall objectives of the Department of Education and Skills are to adopt a whole-system approach to:

  • Promote learning for life for all to foster the knowledge and skills which will facilitate full inclusion in society and the economy;

  • Support inclusion and diversity, particularly for learners with disabilities and special needs, those from disadvantaged communities and those with language, cultural and social differences;

  • Improve quality and accountability for educational outcomes across the system including reporting to parents and the school community, and enhancing education and training outcomes;

  • Build the right systems and infrastructure to achieve these objectives making the best use of available resources. This includes catering for the expansion of education places in line with demographic trends, promoting high quality teaching and ancillary staff, gathering appropriate indicators for evidence based decision making, and promoting best practice and quality research.

The main policy approaches and drivers of reform are:

These are explained fully in the chapter Ongoing Reforms and Policy Developments.

The Constitution

Article 42 of the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hEireann) 1937 provides that:

  • Parents are the primary educators of their children, but that the State should require that children receive a "certain minimum education, moral intellectual and social";

  • The State "shall provide for free primary education" and "supplement and give reasonable aid to private and corporate educational initiative," and, when the public good requires it, provide other educational facilities;

  • Parents are free to provide education in their homes or in private or State recognised schools, and children cannot be compelled against the wishes of their parents to send their children to a State recognised school or a particular type of State recognised school.

Article 44 provides for religious freedom, prevents the State from endowing religion, and prevents the State from discriminating between different religious denominations in providing State aid for schools. Article 44.4 gives rights for any child to attend school funded by the State without attending religious instruction in that school.

Thus, the Constitution sees the State as providing for education for the most part, rather than being a direct provider of State schools, reflecting the denominational nature of the Irish system at the time the Constitution was drafted. Primary schools, and the majority of second level schools are private to the extent that they are not owned by the State but by religious denominations and other communities.

Growth in Provision

Primary education was introduced in 1831. Intermediate (lower secondary) education was introduced in 1878, and the 1930 Vocational Education Act provided for a network of Vocational Education Committees to provide vocational training. Free second level education for all was introduced in 1967. At that time there was also a rapid expansion of vocational training through the establishment of industrial training centres and of Regional Technical Colleges (now Institutes of Technology) offering tertiary vocational training.

Mass access to higher education developed as a follow on from this, and in 2015, 52% of the 25-34 year old population had attained tertiary education (OECD Education at a Glance 2016). Access to higher education under graduate programmes are supported by means tested grants towards tuition and maintenance. A student services charge of €3000 p.a applies to under graduate courses. The State pays this where the student satisfies the criteria of the student support schemes.

The period since the mid-1980s saw a major expansion of second chance education and vocational training in line with availability of European Social Funds, and the period since 2000 has seen concerted efforts to provide a more systemic approach to both lifelong learning and early childhood education.  Post school non-tertiary provision has evolved into a Further Education and Training sector.


The main legislation now governing the education system is set out below:

  • Vocational Education Act 1930 setting up vocational schools and vocational education committees;

  • Education Act 1998 setting out the obligations of the Minister and the role and functions of primary and post primary schools;

  • The Education and Training Boards Act 2013 re-structuring the vocational education committees into Education and Training Boards and giving them responsibility for further education and training in their areas, including vocational training hitherto provided by FAS, the National Training Authority;

  • The Further Education and Training Act 2013 setting up Solas (An Seirbhís Oideachais Leanúnaigh agus Scileanna, the Further Education and Training Authority) responsible for policy, co-ordination and funding of all non-tertiary vocational education and training provided through the regional Education and Training Boards;

  • Higher Education Authority Act 1971 setting up the Higher Education Authority to co-ordinate policy, funding and research in universities (and later Institutes of Technology);

  • Universities Act 1997 updating the role functions and governance of universities;

  • Institutes of Technology Act 2006 updating the role functions and governance of Institutes of Technology, and expanding the role of the Higher Education Authority to include Institutes of Technology;

  • The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004 providing for education services for persons with disabilities, with a particular focus on children;

  • The Qualifications and Quality Assurance (Education and Training Act 2012 establishing Quality and Qualifications Ireland as Ireland's quality assurance agency for further and higher education, as well as implementing the national qualifications framework covering all awards in the State;

  • The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 requires children to attend school between the ages of 6 and 16 or completion of lower second level education, whichever is the later, unless they are receiving a "suitable minimum" education at home or elsewhere. TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency is responsible for monitoring this.