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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice
Organisation of upper secondary education


6.Secondary and Post-Secondary Non-Tertiary Education

6.4Organisation of upper secondary education

Last update: 27 November 2023

Organisation of Upper 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 have 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
Total 722 362,899

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 the national examinations, the Leaving Certificate (senior cycle).

The Senior Cycle caters for students in the 15 to 18 year age group. It includes an optional Transition Year (TY), which follows immediately after the Junior Cycle. It is designed to act as a bridge between the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate programmes. TY provides an opportunity for students to experience a wide range of educational inputs and work experience, over the course of a year that is free from formal examinations. It is available to all second-level schools and currently some 550 schools offer the programme. Transition Year may be optional or mandatory for students depending on the school’s policy.

During the final two years of Senior Cycle students take one of three programmes, each leading to a State Examination: the traditional Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) or the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA).

The Leaving Certificate

The traditional Leaving Certificate examination is the terminal examination of post-primary education and is taken when students are typically 17 or 18 years of age. Syllabuses are available in more than 30 subjects and students are required to take at least five subjects, one of which must be Irish.

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) is similar to the traditional Leaving Certificate Programme, with a concentration on technical subjects and some additional modules which have a vocational focus.

The Leaving Certificate Applied Programme

The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) Programme is a self-contained two-year course. It is a person-centred course involving a cross-curricular approach rather than a subject based structure.

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 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 Students

As a rule, students in senior cycle classes are of similar age. Students in the first year of senior cycle (fourth year) are usually age 16; those in second year of senior cycle (fifth year) are generally age 17; and those in third year of senior cycle (sixth year) are mainly 18 years of age. Most Leaving Certificate examination candidates are 18 years of age when sitting that examination.

The senior cycle curriculum for the Leaving Certificate programmes is subject-centred and teachers specialise in particular subjects. Generally, teachers stay with their subject and classes for the two final years of post-primary education when students are preparing for the Leaving Certificate examinations. Where changes of teachers occur during these two years, it is usually as a result of time-tabling requirements.

However, the situation can differ for those who opt to take the Transition Year programme in the fourth year of post-primary school. Schools can organise Transition Year according to their own needs, in line with Departmental guidelines, and are required to have a written Transition Year plan. It is important to note that in schools where the Transition Year programme is not available, the students following the Leaving Certificate programme are generally described as being in fifth and sixth year, even where there is no 'fourth' year.

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 (Leaving Certificate). These examinations are generally held during three weeks in June starting on the Wednesday following the public holiday on the first Monday. 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.

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)



9.00 - 1.10

1.10 - 2.00

2.00 - 4.00




9.00 - 1.10

1.10 - 2.00

2.00 - 4.00




9.00 - 1.10






9.00 - 1.10

1.10 - 2.00

2.00 - 4.00




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.