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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of the education system and of its structure


2.Organisation and governance

2.3Organisation of the education system and of its structure

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of the Education System and of its Structure

Early Childhood Education and Care

Until the late 1990s early childhood education and care received little policy attention except insofar as it was covered in the initial two years (infant classes) of primary schooling. Up to then, pre-schooling was privately funded by parents, except for some limited provision funded by the Department of Health, in disadvantaged areas, and an Early Start Programme in the education sector in 38 centres, also in disadvantaged areas.

A National Forum for Early Childhood Education – was convened in March 1998. The report on the Forum influenced the government's Ready to Learn: White Paper on Early Childhood Education, published in 1999, setting out government policy for early childhood education. State funding for the ECCE sector began in 2000 and increased progressively since then, through the provision of State subsidies towards the capital and current costs of childcare providers. 

Apart from the 38 Early Start Centres in disadvantaged areas, and the infant classes in primary schools, the provision of early learning falls within the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and the schemes described in the paragraph below are administered by that Department.

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. From September 2016, this has been extended to cover all children aged 3 or more, and the duration has been expanded to cover the period until they start primary school. 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, new measures have been announced in the 2017 Budget, to come into effect in September 2017, which will:

  • 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 €22500 could be of the order of €8000 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 Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has initiated a public consultation process on the proposals so that provision can be adjusted in the light of the responses received and the funds available. Additional capital funding has been provided to support an increased number of childcare places.

Pobal is an executive agency established by Government to provide a range of services to communities. Pobal has been designated by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs 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. A network of County Childcare Committees is funded by Pobal and provides local information and support to parents and childcare providers, as well as advising on gaps in services.   

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 early childhood minimum qualification at Level 5 of the National Qualifications Framework in Ireland 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.

While the County Childcare Committees provide information on services locally, there is no formal regional or local administrative structure for early childhood education and care.

Primary Education

Children are required to attend school by law, or otherwise receive a suitable minimum education, from the age of 6 to 16. In practice, the majority of children start school at age 4 and all are in school by age 5.  The first two years are classified as pre-primary education. Over 90% remain to completion of upper secondary education, generally aged 17/18.  

Children attend school for 8 years of primary education, and then transfer to a second level school of their choice.  The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment is responsible for developing the curriculum for early childhood, primary and second level school settings.

In 2016/17 there were 35669 teachers in 3250 primary schools, catering for 558314 pupils. The primary pupil:teacher ratio in 2016/17 was 16.7:1.

Primary schools are owned by religious denominations or organisations, funded by the State, and run by local boards of management in accordance with a policy, curriculum and funding framework set out by the Department of Education and Skills. Staff qualifications requirements, and pay and conditions are prescribed by the Department. Teachers are recruited locally by school boards of management. The principal legislation in this area is set out in the Education Act 1998

Fees may not be charged by State funded primary schools. However, there are 27 private primary schools which charge fees, catering for 3727 pupils. These schools receive no funds from the State. 

Small schools are a feature of the system. There are 583 primary schools with less than 50 pupils.

There is no intermediate administration tier for primary schools. All schools deal directly with the Department of Education and Skills. However, the Department negotiates and liaises with a wide range of representative organisations such as parents councils, teacher unions, school management bodies, special education needs groups etc. to ensure a consistent approach.

Post-Primary Education

‘Free’ post-primary education was introduced in 1967, which led to a great increase in pupil participation. While traditionally there have been 3 distinct types of second level school – secondary, community/comprehensive, and vocational – these distinctions are no longer relevant, and all types now offer a comprehensive mix of academic and vocational options.  They are collectively called post-primary schools.

The State is responsible for the two public examinations, the Junior Certificate Examination taken at about 15 years of age, marking the end of lower secondary education, and the Leaving Certificate Examination usually taken at about 18 years of age on completion of upper secondary education. There are three types of leaving certificate examinations – the established Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme and the Leaving Certificate Applied. Since 2003, responsibility for the organisation of these examinations has been devolved to the State Examinations Commission (SEC). (

The majority of post primary schools participate in the Free Education Scheme and receive their funds from the State. They may not charge fees. However, most schools supplement their State grants through local fundraising and voluntary contributions by parents.

There are also about 55 fee paying schools that receive State funds towards the cost of teacher salaries (at a higher pupil:teacher ratio than applies to schools in the Free scheme), but they must generally meet their own running and capital costs.

In 2016/17 there were 26273 teachers in 711 post-primary schools, catering for 352257 pupils. The pupil:teacher ratio was 13.7:1. Of the 711 post primary schools, only the 241 vocational schools are publicly owned by the State, and are subject to a regional education structure (originally Vocational Education Committees, but re-structured into 16 Education and Training Boards since 2013.)

The main legislation governing post primary schools is:

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

  • Education Act 1998 setting out 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.

Students transfer from primary school to a second level school of their choice and follow:

  1. 3 year programme of lower secondary education, for students generally aged 12-15, leading to the award of the Junior Certificate. (This is a national exam run by the State Examinations Commission.) Early school leavers may enter a 2 year Youthreach programme in the Further Education Sector;

  2. An optional 1 year programme called the Transition Year – an estimated 66% follow this option), which forms part of upper secondary education. Those who do not follow this programme may move directly into (c);

  3. two year Leaving Certificate programme culminating in a national Leaving Certificate examination run by the State Examinations Commission. This marks the end of upper secondary education. Leaving Certificate students are generally aged 15-18.  Entry to higher education is based on achievement in the Leaving Certificate examinations.

After that, the majority of students enter Higher Education (c 55%) or Further Education or Training (c 28%), following programmes of varying lengths as shown below.  

There are also special access measures to higher education for persons with disabilities, for mature students and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is also possible to progress to higher education based on the achievement of other Further Education awards in the national framework of qualifications on an ad hoc basis. There is a national scheme for holders of full awards from Level 5 Post Leaving Certificate courses, enabling them to progress to Institutes of Technology. 

There is an overlap between post-primary and Further Education and Training sectors as post secondary VET and adult education is provided as an add-on activity in many post primary schools, as well as in stand alone further education and training centres. The 16 regional education and training boards are responsible both for FET and for the 265 post primary vocational schools.

Schools are managed locally by boards of management in accordance with a policy, curriculum and funding framework set out by the Department of Education and Skills. Teachers are appointed by the school boards of management, except in vocational schools, where they are recruited by the Education and Training Boards.Except for the vocational schools, which are co-ordinated through 16 regional Education and Training Boards, there is no intermediate administration structure for post primary education. Curriculum is developed by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, ( As at primary level, the Department of Education and Skills negotiates and liaises with a wide range of representative organisations such as parents' councils, teacher unions, school management bodies, special education organisations, as well as employer, social partner and national level community organisations.

Structure of the National Education System

All pupils are entitled to a suitable education placement to the completion of post primary education or equivalent. TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for monitoring school attendance. Both the Department of Education and TUSLA seek to ensure that every child has a suitable education placement, either in a school or Youthreach centre. A home tuition scheme is also funded by the Department for students who may be out of school due to pregnancy or for whom a placement cannot be found.

Further Education and Training

This sector covers education and training which is aimed at those who have completed their initial schooling and are not in higher education. It includes second chance education and training programmes for early school leavers and the unemployed, vocational training, adult literacy and community education. All non tertiary VET is delivered in the Further Education Sector. Awards cover from basic literacy to advanced certificate level (level 1-6 of the Irish Qualifications Framework (EQF levels 1-5). Apprenticeships have traditionally been provided in this sector at Irish level 6 (EQF 5) as part of Further Education and Training. However, as part of the expansion of apprenticeships into new disciplines initiated in 2014, new apprenticeships may span FE and/or HE.

Provision of FE is mainly through:

  • Dedicated vocational training centres operated by FAS until they were incorporated into the Education and Training Boards (ETBs) set up in 2013;

  • Programmes offered to adults in vocational schools which also offer second level education, and funded by ETBs;

  • Other adult education settings funded by Education and Training Boards;

  • Services contracted out by ETBs to community providers.

Solas the Further Education Authority, was established under the Further Education and Training Act 2013 to integrate, fund and co-ordinate further education programmes in Ireland working in co-operation with the network of 16 regional Education and Training Boards.

The priority in further education and training is to cater for early school leavers, the unemployed, those seeking vocational training, or otherwise not progressing to higher education. Access is based on meeting participants' needs to the extent that resources allow.  However, programmes at Level 5 and 6 generally require that participants have completed upper secondary education or equivalent.

Higher Level Education

Since the 1960s, the State has promoted a binary higher level education policy. In 1968, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) was established as a budgetary and planning agency for the university sector. In addition, a student support scheme, covering means tested fees and maintenance grants, was introduced. In 1995, a policy of "free fees" for undergraduate courses was instituted. In later years however, this was eroded through the introduction of a "student services charge" which now stands at €3,000 per student per annum. Those who are eligible under the means tested student support scheme have this charge paid for them by the State.

The State built up the Regional Technical Colleges from the late 1960s as the second leg of its binary policy. These proved very successful and are now called Institutes of Technology.

In 2006 the Higher Education Authority assumed responsibility for policy, funding and research in both universities and Institutes of Technology.

In 2016/17 there were 7 universities, 14 Institutes of Technology, 3 Colleges of Education (providing initial and continuing teacher training) and 2 other higher education institutions funded by the State. These catered for 181039 full time students. 

The rate of participation in higher level education has increased consistently over the past twenty years (52% of the 25-34 population had attained tertiary education in 2015). HEA student projections show that participation in higher education will continue to grow. This will be driven by increasing demand for higher education by both the school-leaving population and mature students.

Higher education institutions have academic freedom and receive their funding from the HEA based on performance compacts agreed with the Authority. Institutions are managed by Governing bodies. The main legislation is:

Central Applications Office operates an admission system to higher education based on requirements set by the colleges. Places are awarded on an order of merit based on performance in the Leaving Certificate Examination, or equivalent, or based on achievement of Level 5 Vocational Awards. The Level 5 awards give access to Institutes of Technology only.  In addition, there are non standard entry routes, generally for adults, operated directly by colleges which offer places to participants whom they deem to be of an appropriate educational standard.