Organisation and Governance
The Irish Education system is best described as one of partnership between the State and various private agencies. This partnership finds its roots in the nineteenth century when the State assisted the churches in the provision of primary schools, beginning in 1831.
In practice the State has, for many years, gone well beyond its minimum constitutional obligation to provide for free education at primary level by providing for it also up to about age 18 in the majority of post-primary schools. The minimum statutory school leaving age is now 16 years, but about 90% of the age cohort complete post-primary education at about 18 years of age.
The 19th century precedent of partnership between the State and private and corporate educational bodies has given way under the Constitution to the State's role in the planning and provision of educational facilities. All primary schools and the majority of post primary schools are "private" in the sense that they are not owned by the State, but by organisations and religious denominations. While they are funded by the State in accordance with a national framework covering curriculum, funding levels, teacher pay and conditions and qualifications, they are managed by local boards of management. The exception is that there are 265 (out of 735 post primary schools) which are fully owned by the State and are called "vocational schools". These cater for about a one third of all post primary students.
The Department of Education and Skills (DES) is responsible for the administration of public education at primary and post-primary levels, special education, as well as for funding Further and Higher Education and Training. The aim of the DES is to ensure the provision of a comprehensive, cost-effective and accessible education system of the highest quality as measured by international standards. The mission statement of the Department is directed towards an education system that will enable individuals to develop to their full potential as persons and to participate fully as citizens in society, contributing to social and economic development. The DES is led by the Minister for Education and Skills and the Secretary General of that Department.
In earlier years, the DES was seen mainly as a facilitator in an education system, which consisted largely of privately owned institutions. The 1930 Vocational Education Act gave the State a more significant role in certain areas of education, by setting up State owned vocational schools and a network of Vocational Education Committees.
Free second level education for all was introduced in 1967 for the first time, leading to to increased participation rates. This resulted in the development of comprehensive and community schools, and the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges (now Institutes of Technology) and the Department of Education and Skills began to play a more significant role in developing and implementing educational policy. Yet the centralised structure of the administrative system did not change. Apart from the network of Vocational Education Committees (which were re-structured into 16 Education and Training Boardsin 2013), there is no comprehensive regional structure for schools in Irish educational administration. Therefore, all primary schools (3262) and 470 of the 735 post primary schools deal directly with the DES. The Public Service Management Act, 1997, puts a statutory obligation on the Department to pursue excellence and transparency in its dealing with the education partners.