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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of lower secondary education


6.Secondary and Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education

6.1Organisation of lower secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of Lower Secondary Education

Types of Institutions

The post-primary education sector comprises secondary, vocational, community and comprehensive schools, with all schools offering lower and upper secondary education.

Secondary schools are state-established, owned by a Trustee/Patron and managed by a Board of Management (BOM). Trustees/Patrons of voluntary secondary schools include Bishops, Religious Orders, Boards of Governors, Education Trust Companies and Private individuals. The Trustee/Patron is responsible for ensuring the running of the school and has a moral as well as legal responsibility to maintain schools in accordance with a specific ethos or characteristic spirit.

Vocational schools are also state-established but are administered by Education and Training Boards (ETBs), whilst Community and Comprehensive schools are managed by Boards of Management of differing compositions. There is a regional structure only for the 248 vocational schools, which are co-ordinated through 16 regional Education and Training Boards.

Overall for the 2018/201 school year, there were 722 state-aided secondary schools catering for 362,899 pupils.

School Type Number of Schools Enrolment
Secondary 378 198,839
Vocational 248 103,504
Community and Comprehensive 96 60,556




There are also a number of fee-paying State secondary schools.

All schools offer a mix of academic and vocational subjects under the national curriculum leading to national examination at lower secondary level – The Junior Certificate. The introduction of the new Junior Cycle Framework in 2015 saw all school types operating within an identical curricular framework, built around key skills and statements of learning, but with significant flexibility within this framework.

Facilities for practical or vocational subjects are more usually available in the State-funded schools (vocational, comprehensive/community) as well as in boys' single-sex schools. The provision of modern languages, Art, Music and Home Economics, has traditionally been more widespread in voluntary secondary schools, particularly single-sex girls' schools. In recent years, there has been a broadening in the uptake of traditionally ‘gender-biased’ subjects in all three types of school, although disparity still appears in many instances, and a range of modern subjects has come on stream in many schools, catering for technological and scientific education in particular.

Geographical Accessibility

Ireland has a large number of small post-primary schools, as per the table below:

Post Primary schools by size 2018/2019

Enrolment Size

Number of Schools

Fewer than 50














The school transport scheme, which is funded by the Department of Education and Skills, was established in 1967 to give access to school for pupils who live in less-populated areas. In order to qualify for school transport, a post primary child must live more than 4.8 km (3 miles) from their nearest suitable post-primary school. While the service had previously been free for eligible pupils, since the beginning of the 2011/12 school year, eligible pupils are subject to an annual charge.

For the school year 2018/19, the fee is €350 per eligible student per year, with a maximum charge of €650 per family. Fees are waived for dependants of medical card holders. In addition, there are arrangements in operation for children living on remote islands off the west coast, some of whom avail of a boat transport system to attend schools on the mainland.

A remote area grant is available for those who are eligible for school transport but who cannot be catered for by the school transport scheme. The grant is based on distance and number of days travelled. There are additional arrangements for children with special needs who, because of their disability, cannot travel on normal school transport services. These arrangements are on the basis of advice from the National Council for Special Education.

Admission Requirements and Choice of School

It is the responsibility of the managerial authorities of all schools to implement an enrolment policy in accordance with the Education Act 1998.

This Department's main responsibility is to ensure that schools in an area can, between them, cater for all pupils seeking school places in the area. Parents can choose which school to apply to and, where the school has places available, the pupil should be admitted. However, in schools where there are more applicants than places available, a selection process may be necessary. This selection process and the enrolment policy on which it is based must comply with the relevant sections of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. The selection process must also be non-discriminatory, and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants. However, this may result in some pupils not obtaining a place in the school of their first choice.

Section 29 of the Education Act, 1998 provides for an appeal by a parent or guardian to the Secretary General of the Department, or in the case of an Educational Training Board (ETB) school to the ETB in the first instance.

Age Levels and Grouping of Pupils/Students

On transferring to a post primary school of their choice, students follow a 3 year Junior cycle programme leading to the award of a Junior Certificate. Junior cycle students are generally aged 12-15 years. After that, they may:

  • follow an optional one year Transition Year programme (66% do this), followed by a 2 year Leaving Certificate programme i.e. a 3 year senior cycle. Students are generally aged 16-18.


  • move directly into the Leaving Certificate 2 year programme. These students are generally aged 16-17.

Students then progress to higher education, further education and training or the labour market.

The Department of Education and Skills and National Council for Curriculum and Assessment encourage mixed ability grouping rather than streaming in post primary schools, although decisions on the allocation of classes are made by schools at local level. Generally, students have different teachers for each subject. The teacher unions have a directive in place urging their members to ensure that class sizes to not exceed 30 for general subjects, 20 for Home Economics and 24 for practical subjects and the Transition Year. Subjects taught at junior and senior cycle are explained in the section below on Teaching and Learning.

Organisation of the School Year

Post-primary schools operating a five-day week are required to provide instruction to students for a minimum of 167 days. Those operating a six-day week (a small number of boarding schools) require a minimum of 187 days per year. Post-primary schools are also deemed to be in operation when normal instruction may not be taking place. In particular, thirteen days are allowed for the holding of the State Examinations (Junior Certificate). These examinations are generally held during three weeks in June starting on the Wednesday following the public holiday on the first Monday. Agreements reached in late 2010 meant that parent-teacher meetings, staff meetings, teacher in-service and planning days are mainly provided outside of normal tuition hours, up to a total of thirty three hours per year.

The dates for school closure for holidays and mid-term breaks have been regulated since the standardisation of the school year was introduced in 2003. This applies to both primary and post-primary schools. The most up-to-date circular for the 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 school years can be found on the Department's website - Standardisation of School Year (PDF).

Organisation of the School Day and Week

Post-primary schools are obliged to operate for 28 hours per week where they offer a five-day week. The vast majority commence teaching at approximately 9am and conclude at 4pm, although voluntary secondary schools may hold classes between 8am and 6pm. A small number of voluntary secondary schools, including boarding schools, operate a six-day week holding classes on Saturday morning also.

Some schools (mainly single-sex boys' schools and coeducational schools) do not schedule classes for Wednesday afternoon. In these cases, tuition time on the other days of the week is extended to meet the required weekly time allocation. Vocational schools and community colleges generally operate a similar weekly and daily timetable to their secondary, community and comprehensive school counterparts. A minimum of twenty-eight hours of instruction per week is common to all sectors. A sample school week, including shortened Wednesday, would look like the following:

  Out-of-hours provision (before lessons) Lessons (starting      and finishing times in the morning)

Lunch break


Lessons (starting and finishing times in the afternoon) Out-of-hours provision

(after lessons)
Monday   9.00 - 1.10 1.10 - 2.00 2.00 - 4.00  
Tuesday   9.00 - 1.10 1.10 - 2.00 2.00 - 4.00  
Wednesday   9.00 - 1.10      
Thursday   9.00 - 1.10 1.10 - 2.00 2.00 - 4.00  
Friday   9.00 - 1.10 1.10 - 2.00 2.00 - 4.00  

Class periods of instruction may vary in length but are most often between 35 and 40 minutes in length. The duration of class periods is at the discretion of the school management. While guidelines and Inspectorate reports offer advice on appropriate timetable allocations for subjects, the Department of Education and Skills has prescribed minimum tuition time in only a small minority of subjects at post-primary level.