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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of Primary Education


5.Primary Education

5.1Organisation of Primary Education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of 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) which may be denominational or multi-denominational. 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 often made towards their running costs. Teachers’ salaries are paid by the Department of Education, 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. In 2020/21 nearly 42% of four-year-olds and almost all five-year-olds were 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.

Geographical Accessibility

Ireland has a large number of small primary schools (see below table for details). Therefore, primary schools are generally available within a reasonable distance from a child's home. The School Transport Scheme, which is funded by the Department of Education, was established in 1967 to give access to school for pupils who live remote from their nearest school. In order to qualify for school transport, a child must live more than 3.2km from their nearest primary school having regard to ethos and language. While the service had previously been free for eligible pupils, since the beginning of the 2011/12 school year, eligible primary pupils are subject to an annual charge. For the school year 2018/2019 there is a charge of €100 per pupil, with a maximum of €220 for each family that only uses the primary school transport scheme. For families who have children using the post-primary transport scheme, in order to qualify for school transport, a child must live more than 4.8km from their nearest primary school having regard to ethos and language.  The fee is €350 per student per year, with a maximum charge of €650 per family. Eligible children who hold a medical card do not have to pay the charge. 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.

If there are spare seats available, a primary child who is not eligible can avail of school transport at a charge of €100 per year. The maximum annual amount for a family is €220. Children who hold a medical card, but who are not eligible for school transport, will still have to pay this charge.

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 special needs, cannot travel on mainstream school transport services. Eligibility for transport on services for children with special educational needs, is determined in consultation with the National Council for Education through its network of Special Educational Needs Organisers (SENOs).

Enrolment Size

Number of Primary Schools 2019/20

Fewer than 50 pupils














Admission Requirements and Choice of School

Legal position

Article 42 of the Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hEireann) [1] 1937, provides that parents are free to provide education in their homes or in private or in State-recognised schools, and children cannot be compelled against the wishes of their parents to be sent to a State-recognised school or any 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.

The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 [2] requires that children attend school between ages 6 and 16, or otherwise receive a suitable minimum education. In practice, children may attend schools from age 4. In 2020/21 41% of 4-year old’s, and all 5-year old’s are in primary school. Children normally attend their local school, but they have the right to attend the school of their parents' choice, once a place is available. No State funded school may use academic attainment as an admission criterion.

The Education Act, 1998, acknowledges the right of parents/guardians to send their children to the school of their choice with due regard for the obligation of denominational schools to maintain their religious ethos.

Under the provisions of the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018 all schools are required to have drafted new admissions policies, which have been approved by the patron, following consultation with staff and parents of children who are attending the school.  The newly revised school’s admissions policy is published on the schools website. It is a key requirement of the act that all school admission policies are fair and transparent.

All schools have published an admissions notice outlining the timelines of the admissions process, this must be published a minimum of one week prior to the admissions process taking place. The admissions form are also published on the school’s website. Schools cannot start this process until 1 October at the earliest in the year preceding the school year applied for. It also specifies when the school must make a decision and convey this decision in writing within the specified period as set out on their Admission Notice.

Schools have discretion in relation to the timing of their admission processes.  The criteria to be applied by schools and the order of priority are a matter for the schools themselves.

Section 29 of the Education Act [4], 1998, as amended by section 7 of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 provides for an appeal by a parent or /guardian or in the case of a student who has reached the age of 18 years, a student to the Department of Education, where a Board of Management of a school, or a person acting on behalf of the Board, refuses to enrol a student in a school, expels a student or suspends a student for 20 or more days in any school year. If the applicants’ appeal is upheld, the school may be directed by the independent appeal committee examining the appeal to enrol the child in the school. If either party is unhappy with the outcome of this process, it has the right to seek redress through the courts.

Section 7 of the Education (Admissions to Schools) Act 2018 has provided for the replacement of the existing Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 with a series of new sections numbered 29 to 29F. These new appeal provisions in sections 29 to 29F are designed to work alongside the wider admissions framework in the 2018 Act and came into operation from 12 November 2020.

Tusla, [5] the Child and Family agency is the statutory agency which can assist parents who are experiencing difficulty in securing a school place for their child.

Every school must provide in its Admissions policy that it will not discriminate against an applicant for admission on any of the specified grounds as follows: the gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, disability, race, member of traveller community or special educational needs. As per section 61 (3) of the Education Act 1998, ‘gender ground’, ‘civil status ground’, ‘family status ground’, ‘sexual orientation ground’, ‘religion ground’, ‘disability ground’, ‘ discriminate’, ‘ground of race’ and ‘Traveller community ground’ shall be construed in accordance with section 3 of the Equal Status Act 2000. [6]

Since October 2018, the Equal Status Act 2000 has been amended to remove, in the case of recognised denominational primary schools, the existing provision in section 7(3)(c) of that Act that permits such schools to use religion as a selection criterion in school admissions. Under this provision, there will be a protection to ensure that a child of a minority faith, can still access a school of their faith. The provision provides that a recognised denominational primary school does not discriminate where it admits as a priority a student from a minority religion who is seeking admission to a school that provides religious instruction or religious education which is the same religious ethos or similar religious ethos to the student seeking admission.

This ensures greater fairness in school admissions. While recognising the right of all schools to have their distinctive ethos, the removal of religion as a criteria for admission to school seeks to be fair to all parents including non-religious families that will now find that in virtually all publicly funded primary schools there will be impartiality in school admissions.

It is the responsibility of the managerial authorities of all schools to implement an enrolment policy in accordance with the Education Acts, 1998 & 2018 [7].

The 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. The Department’s policy is that students with special educational needs should be included where possible and appropriate in mainstream placements with additional supports provided. In circumstances where children with special needs require more specialised interventions, a continuum of education provision extends including access to special school or special class places. 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 Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018  [8] The selection process must 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.

This act provides the Minister with a power to compel a school to open a special class following a number of steps after a process of consultation with the National Council for Special Education (NCSE), the Board of Management and the Patron of a school. The government has prioritised investment in the area of special education support. In 2021, approximately €2 billion will be invested in special education support, an increase of over 50% since 2011. Since 2011, the number of special classes in mainstream schools has increased by almost 286% from 548 to 2,118 for the 2021/2022 school year, providing places for approximately 12,700 students with additional needs.124 special schools currently provide specialist education for approximately 8,000 pupils annually. Two new special schools will open for the 2021/22 school-year.

Patronage of Schools

Irish society as a whole is in the process of major social, cultural and demographic change. One of the most complex and challenging aspects of reform in our school system is how best to deal with changes in school ethos and religious and moral education. There are very strong opposing views on these matters and the Minister for Education & Skills is endeavoring to provide the most reasonable and inclusive reforms in this area. The Government is committed to progressing the development of a dynamic and innovative education system that reflects the diversity of twenty-first Century Ireland.

Since 2011, new schools are generally only established in areas of demographic growth. The Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises at primary and post-primary level to uses with the aid of a Geographical Information System (GIS) to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, the Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. The GIS uses data from a range of sources, including the Central Statistics Office, Ordnance Survey Ireland, the Department of Social Protection and the Department's own databases. With this information, the Department determines where additional school accommodation is needed.

The patronage process for new schools is overseen by the New Schools Establishment Group (NSEG). This independent advisory group was set up in 2011 to advise the Minister on the patronage of new schools following its consideration of a report prepared by the Department on the applications received.

Once it has been established from the demographic exercises that a new school, primary or post-primary, is required to meet the demographic need in a school planning area, a separate process is conducted to establish who will run the school. It is open to all patron bodies and prospective patrons to apply for patronage of a new school under the patronage process. Parental preferences for each patron, together with the extent of diversity currently available in the area, are key to decisions in relation to the outcome of this process. The patronage process also incorporates consideration of, and the potential for, Irish-medium provision.

Parental preferences for each patron proposing to run a new school, are gathered by means of an online survey of parents in the relevant school planning area.

Following consideration of the survey and of the existing school provision in the area , the results of the assessment are incorporated in a report for consideration by the NSEG. The NSEG reviews the contents of the patronage assessment report and then compiles a list for recommendation to the Minister.


Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2018

The Reform Chapter sets out information on the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 [9], which is currently progressing through Parliament. When enacted, this will:


  • Ensure that where a school is not oversubscribed (80% of schools) it must admit all students applying;
  • Ban waiting lists, thus ending the discrimination against parents who move in to a new area;
  • Ban fees relating to admissions in non-fee paying schools;
  • Require all schools to publish their admissions policies, which will include details of the provisions for pupils who decline to participate in religious instruction;
  • Require all schools to consult with and inform parents where changes are being made to admissions policies;
  • Explicitly ban discrimination in school admissions;
  • Provide for a situation where a child (with special needs or otherwise) cannot find a school place, and allow the National Council for Special Education or Tusla (Child and Family Agency) to designate a school place for the child.

Age Levels and Grouping of Pupils

Although compulsory education does not begin until age 6, over half of all four-year olds and almost all five-year olds are enrolled in primary schools. The typical primary school enrols pupils by age into eight-year groups, or standards, ranging from junior infants and senior infants, followed by 1st Class to 6th Class:


Typical Age

Junior Infants

4-5 year olds

Senior infants

5-6 year olds

First class

6-7 year olds

Second class

7-8 year olds

Third class

8-9 year olds

Fourth class

9-10 year olds

Fifth class

10-11 year olds

Sixth class

11-12 year olds


In 2020/21 there were 545,493 pupils in 23,460 classes in the state. Approximately 420,906 pupils were in single grade classes, 93,168 in consecutive grade classes and 31,419 in multi-grade classes [13]  

The mainstream class teacher provides instruction to their assigned class/es in all curriculum areas. In addition, pupils may avail of support from special education teachers (SET) and/or English as an Additional Language (EAL) support teachers, where appropriate. This additional support may take the form of either withdrawal or in-class support. The child in a small school is usually taught by the same teacher for more than one year whilst this is far less likely to occur in a larger school. However, it is the principal who is responsible for the allocation of teaching duties ‘taking into account the needs of the pupils and the abilities, experience, personality and preference of each teacher.’ The mainstream staffing of a primary school is determined by applying the enrolment of the school on the 30th September of the previous school year to a staffing schedule which issues annually. This schedule is set out in Staff scheduling - [10].

The pupil teacher ratio for 2020-21 was 14.5:1 whilst the average class size was 23.3 [13].As the basic staffing complement of many schools is augmented by the assignment of teachers who are not directly engaged in class duties, (e.g., special education teachers (SET), administrative principals, EAL teachers etc.) the overall pupil-teacher ratio and the average class size are not comparable.

Organisation of the School Year

With the exception of private schools, all primary schools are governed by the rules laid down centrally by the Department of Education. Each primary school is required to be open for a minimum of 183 days per year.

Since the academic year 2003-2004, a ‘standardised’ school year is agreed in advance between the Department of Education, school management and the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO). This agreement facilitates ‘standardised’ Christmas and Easter holidays, and mid-term breaks in the first and second terms of the school year. To accommodate some flexibility at local level, schools may use three discretionary days outside the defined periods. Agreements reached in late 2010 mean that time for parent-teacher meetings, staff meetings, teacher in-service and planning days, have to be found, with some exceptions, outside of normal tuition hours, up to a total of thirty-six hours per year. The Circular Standardisation of the School Year [11] provides more details.

Organisation of the School Day and Week

Children generally attend primary school for five days of the week (Monday to Friday) during term time. Schools usually start and finish a little earlier in urban areas (08:50-14:30) than in many country schools (09:20-15:00). Pupils in the infant classes normally finish one hour earlier than the general school population (13:30/14:00). Instruction of not less than four hours daily is provided, as well as thirty minutes religious instruction, assembly time, roll call and a period of time for recreation.


Out of hours provision (before lessons)

Lessons (starting and finishing times in the morning)



Lessons (starting and finishing times in the afternoon)

Out of hours provision (after lessons)










































Note: There is no state provision of activities either before or after the school day in Ireland. Schools are closed on Saturdays. Also, there is normally a short ten-minute break in the morning to allow children to have a quick snack, usually at 11 o'clock.