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EACEA National Policies Platform:Eurydice



Last update: 21 February 2024

Key Features of the Education System in Ireland


Ireland exited an EU/IMF bailout in 2013. The economy is recovering and unemployment has fallen to 6.4% (Quarterly National Household Survey Q2 2017) from a high of 15.0% in 2012. Challenges remain regarding the high level of public debt, uncertainties as to the impact of Brexit, youth unemployment (13.2%), housing shortages (affecting student accommodation, mobility of workers and homelessness) and balancing the need for financial stability against demands that cuts to pay and services made during the Recession will be restored.

In the second quarter of 2019, the level of GDP increased by 0.7% relative to the previous quarter (on a seasonally adjusted basis). As a result, GDP was 5.8% higher year-on-year (D/Finance Monthly Economic Bulletin October 2019[2]).

Key challenges for the education system are to:

  • Cater for a rapid growth in enrolment in schools;
  • Promote a more pluralist school system which better caters for diversity, particularly religious diversity, in line with the changing profile of the population;
  • Address the high levels of youth unemployment (15.7% in Q2 2019, having fallen from 16.1% in Q2 2017);
  • Ensuring Ireland has the skills to respond to employment opportunities for the changing world of work is essential to sustaining economic competitiveness and growth. The education and training system will play a key role in addressing existing and emerging skills needs, providing education, training and skills development opportunities to new entrants as well as ongoing upskilling and reskilling of existing labour market participants.
  • Continue to enhance quality, relevance and achievement at every level of the system. 

There are further areas where the government is anxious to make progress including:

  • Large scale reform and continued roll-out of junior cycle to ensure that students will benefit from this broader, more holistic, student-centered approach to education and form of assessment with achievement of the Junior Cycle Profiles of Achievement (JCPA)  (in place of the current junior certificate programme);
  • Achievement levels in science;
  • Take-up of gateway subjects;
  • The growing participation of children with Special Educational Needs in the Education System and the capacity of the education system to better support their full participation and progression to ensure that they are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

    €1.9m or about one fifth of the overall Education budget will be invested in the provision of additional supports for children with special educational needs in 2020. This will include funding for an additional 1,064 Special Needs Assistants posts which will be available for allocation in 2020.  This will bring the total number of SNA posts in our schools in 2020 to 17,000 compared to 10,575 in 2011. By the end of 2019, there will be up to 15,950 SNAs working in our schools, an increase of over 51% since 2011.

    Nationally, 167 new special classes opened this school year, which means there are 1,618 special classes in place, compared to 548 in 2011.  Of these 1,353 special classes cater for students diagnosed with ASD.

    An additional 1,050 specialised places have been provided this school year, with 167 new special classes.  This brings the total number of special class places to over 9,700, almost a trebling provision since 2011. Over 80% of these are ASD special class places.

    125 special schools also provide specialist education for students with complex special educational needs including ASD. These schools now provide over 8,000 places compared to 6,848 in 2011.

    There are over 13,400 special education teacher posts currently allocated to mainstream primary and post primary who support the mainstream class teacher by providing additional teaching support for pupils with special educational needs in schools.  

    The total number of SETs has increased by 37% since 2011, from 9,740 in 2011, to over 13,400 at present.

    Budget 2020 provided an additional 120 special education teacher posts which means that 13,620 Special Education Teaching posts will be available for allocation to mainstream primary and post primary schools by the end of 2020.

  • Teaching of foreign languages – Ireland’s Strategy for Foreign Languages in Education 2017-2026 sets out a roadmap towards ensuring Ireland is prepared for a changed European dynamic and to prepare Ireland for Brexit. It sets out targeted measures for improving fluency, increasing the number of languages taught, improving proficiency, diversity and increasing immersion programmes. The targets will be achieved through increasing the number of post-primary schools offering two or more foreign languages by 25% and doubling the number of foreign language assistants in schools. Implementation of this ambitious strategy will require significant changes to how foreign languages have been taught in the past and will require extra resources;
  • Quality Assurance is becoming an area of growing strategic importance to Irish HEIs. Quality within Higher Education is a summary report of the quality assurance and quality enhancement activities in publicly funded higher education institutions pertaining to the previous academic year. A report produced by the Professional Association Research Network (PARN) provides a clear picture of the professional accreditation landscape in Irish higher education. The report, Professional Body Accreditation in Higher Education Institutions in Ireland, highlights the benefits to higher education institutions of accreditation activity but also identifies that these engagements can be resource intensive.

Key Features of the Irish education system include:

  • A large number of small schools (of the 3,250 primary schools, approximately 200 are 2-teacher schools, 200 are 3-teacher schools and 200 are 4-teacher schools);
  • All children in Ireland are entitled to free primary and post-primary education. Most primary schools are funded by the state and the vast majority of children attend these schools. The school system is mainly private in the sense that all primary schools and the majority of second level schools are not public schools, but are locally owned by organisations or religious denominations. There are approximately 27 fee-paying primary schools and 55 fee-paying second level schools. Education is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of six to sixteen or until students have completed three years of second-level education.State-funded education is available at all levels, unless parents/guardians choose to send their child to a private institution;
  • An early childhood education and care sector (outside of infant classes in primary schools) that began to receive significant State investment only since 2000.  These services are delivered outside the formal education system in Ireland by a diverse range of private, community and voluntary interests that are described variously as crèches, nurseries, pre-schools, naíonraí (Irish language pre-schools), playgroups and daycare services. Government investment in such provision is primarily implemented by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA);
  • Two official languages, Irish and English. English is the medium of instruction in the majority of schools, while Irish is also taught. However, in designated Gaeltacht schools along areas of the western and southern seaboard, Irish is the medium of instruction, with English also being taught. There are also a limited number of Irish medium schools in urban areas outside the Gaeltacht.

The Department of Education (DE) is responsible for policy, ensuring provision, funding and regulation of education at all levels of the system. Since 2010, responsibility for the vocational training sector rests with the DES.

Early Learning

Early learning has been, until recently, comparatively underdeveloped in Ireland outside of the infant classes in primary schools. Significant progress has been made towards the establishment of high quality Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) provision in Ireland in recent years. The DES operates a split system of governance and regulation with the DCYA in the implementation of early childhood education. Government investment and responsibility for early childhood education and care is shared across the DES and is primarily implemented by the DCYA. Since 2000, with EU support, a programme of investment in childcare has been expanded progressively.

In the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-2020, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the Government committed to continue to increase investment in high-quality early years care and education for all children, prioritising families on low incomes.

A 'free' Pre-School Year scheme of 38 weeks (Early Childhood Care and Education, or ECCE scheme) was first introduced in January 2010. Since September 2016, this was extended to a maximum of two free-of-charge pre-school years for all children aged between 3 years 2 months and 4 years 7 months in September of the relevant year with entitlement to appropriate programme-based activities in the year/s prior to starting 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 has been generally funded by parents. However, in a move towards a more broadly based wrap-around childcare service, a Universal Childcare Subsidy was introduced from September 2017 for children aged 0-36 months, and a targeted tapered childcare subsidy is being introduced for low income families, catering for children up to 15 years of age. 

Primary Schools

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
  • Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium schools).

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 made towards their running costs. Teachers’ salaries are paid by the Department of Education and Skills, 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. Nearly 40% of four-year-olds and almost all five-year-olds are 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.


The general aims of primary education are:


  • To enable the child to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual
  • To enable the child to develop as a social being through living and co-operating with others and so contribute to the good of society
  • To prepare the child for a continuum of learning.
  • The primary curriculum aims to provide a broad learning experience and encourages a rich variety of approaches to teaching and learning that cater for the different needs of individual children. The revised primary curriculum, launched in 1999, was the first complete revision of the curriculum since 1971. The revised curriculum is designed to nurture the child in all dimensions of his or her life—spiritual, moral, cognitive, emotional, imaginative, aesthetic, social and physical.


The curriculum is divided into the following key areas:

  • Language – Irish and English
  • Mathematics
  • Social, Environment and Scientific Education
  • Arts Education, including Visual Arts, Music and Drama
  • Physical Education
  • Social, Personal and Health Education.


Single sex schools teach boys and girls separately. Coeducational schools teach boys and girls together. A number of special schools cater for particular types of disability and special needs (see: Special services and extra support).

In addition to this, there are an estimated twenty-seven private (fee-paying) primary schools which receive no funds from the State.

Early years’ education is provided by trained teachers in infant classes in primary schools. The compulsory school age in Ireland is 6 and all forms of pre-primary education are optional. However, children from the age of 4 can be enrolled in infant classes in primary schools. Nearly 40% of 4-year-olds and virtually all 5-year-olds attend primary school, where early education is provided in infant classes.

Second Level Schools

The post-primary education sector comprises secondary, vocational, community and comprehensive schools. Secondary schools are privately owned and managed. Vocational schools are state-established and administered by Education and Training Boards (ETBs), while community and comprehensive schools are managed by Boards of Management of differing compositions.


Post-primary education consists of a three-year Junior Cycle (lower secondary), followed by a two or three year Senior Cycle (upper secondary), depending on whether the optional Transition Year (TY) is taken.


Students usually begin the Junior Cycle at age 12. The Junior Certificate examination is taken after three years. The main objective of the Junior Cycle is for students to complete a broad and balanced curriculum, and to develop the knowledge and skills that will enable them to proceed to Senior Cycle education. A new Framework for Junior Cycle is going to make significant changes to the current Junior Cycle beginning in September 2014.  View the full range of subjects and short courses for Junior Cycle.


The Senior Cycle caters for students in the 15 to 18 year age group. It includes an optional Transition Year, which follows immediately after the Junior Cycle. TY provides an opportunity for students to experience a wide range of educational inputs, including work experience, over the course of a year that is free from formal examinations.


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. View the full range of Senior Cycle subjects.


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 Programme  (LCA)  is a self-contained two-year course, intended to meet the needs of those students who are not adequately catered for by other Leaving Certificate programmes. It is a person-centred course involving a cross-curricular approach rather than a subject based structure.

Further Education and Training

Further Education covers education and training which occurs after second level schooling but which is not part of the third level system. There are number of providers of Further and Adult Education and Training and a wide variety of schools, organisations and institutions, are involved in the delivery of continuing education and training for young school leavers and adults.

Education and Training Boards (ETBs)

The 16 ETBs were established on 1st July 2013 following from the commencement of the Education and Training Boards Act 2013.


The ETBs have responsibility for the delivery of primary, post primary and further education in line with their predecessor VECs. The former training functions of FÁS have also been transferred to the ETBs.



SOLAS was established on 27 October 2013, following the commencement of the Further Education and Training Act 2013. SOLAS works with the ETBs to support the development of appropriate further education and training programmes and curricula and the sourcing of further education and training interventions from the private, public and not for profit sector.


Adult Education and Training

Adult Education is set out in Learning for Life - White Paper on Adult Education, published in 2000. A range of education and training is provided by various organisations aimed at upskilling and reskilling people who are unemployed.  Providing skills for work is a priority.


National Framework of Qualifications


Certification in the Further and Higher Education and Training Sector is usually in alignment with the National Framework of Qualifications – an awards framework of 10 levels which is aligned to the European Framework of Qualifications.  Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI) quality assures institutions of further and higher education and training, validates educational programmes and makes awards to learners.


Institutions Providing Adult Education and Training


The main provider of further and adult education and training are the Education and Training Boards (ETBs).   


Full-Time Programmes in Further Education


  • Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) Courses
  • Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS)
  • Youthreach


Part-Time Programmes in Further Education


  • Back To Education Initiative (BTEI)
  • Adult Literacy
  • Community Education

Higher Education and Training

Higher Education in Ireland is provided mainly by Universities, Institutes of Technology and Colleges of Education. In addition, a number of other third level institutions provide specialist education in such fields as art and design, medicine, business studies, rural development, theology, music and law. Click here for a full list of these institutions.


Applications for entry to undergraduate courses in universities, colleges of education, institutes of technology and some other institutes of higher education, are processed by the Central Applications Office (CAO).  The aim of the system is to process applications centrally and to deal with them in an efficient and fair manner. The participating institutions retain the function of making decisions on admissions.


The Higher Education Authority (HEA) is the statutory planning and development body for higher education and research in Ireland. The HEA has wide advisory powers throughout the whole of the third-level education sector. In addition it is the funding authority for the universities, institutes of technology and other designated higher education institutions.


The Universities Act, 1997 sets out the objects and functions of a university, the structure and role of governing bodies, staffing arrangements, composition and role of academic councils and sections relating to property, finance and reporting. The governing authorities are required to see that strategic development plans are in place, and that procedures for evaluating teaching and research are in place. The HEA has an overseeing role on such plans and quality assurance procedures. The legislative framework preserves the academic freedom of the universities and respects the diverse traditions and institutional autonomy of each university.


The Institutes of Technology Act, 2006, creates a similar relationship between the institutes and the HEA as that between the HEA and the universities. It provides for greater institutional autonomy, improved governance and a statutory guarantee of academic freedom for the Institutes of Technology.


The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, which was launched in 2011, will see the transformation of Ireland’s higher education sector over the next two decades.  Endorsed by Government as the future blueprint for the sector, the Strategy sets out changes for the sector that are aimed at providing for:


  • a more flexible system, with a greater choice of provision and modes of learning for an increasingly diverse cohort of students;
  • improvements in the quality of the student experience, the quality of teaching and learning and the relevance of learning outcomes; and
  • ensuring that higher education connects more effectively with wider social, economic and enterprise needs through its staff, the quality of its graduates, the relevance of its programmes, the quality of its research and its ability to translate that into high value jobs and real benefits for society.
  • National Strategy for Higher Education 2030: Implementation Plan
  • National Strategy for Higher Education 2030: Progress Report Q4 2012


In May 2013 the Minister for Education and Skills announced a major re-organisation of the country’s higher education sector. This announcement followed recommendations made by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on system reconfiguration, inter-institutional collaboration and system governance in Irish higher education.



A new system performance framework is being put in place by the HEA based on key system objectives and indicators noted by Government.  In the next stage of implementation of the framework the HEA will enter into a set of individual institutional performance compacts with higher education institutions which will reflect each institution’s contribution as part of a new higher education system designed to respond to the needs of Ireland’s economy and wider society in the coming years.  A key element in the overall approach will be the implementation of performance funding in the sector.


Technological Universities


Technological Universities will address the social and economic needs of their region and will engage in industry-focused research. Technological Universities will focus on science and technology programmes that are vocationally and professionally oriented.


The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030  made recommendations for the creation of technological universities and the process and criteria for designation as a technological university were set out in the 2012 Landscape document.


A Technological University will be distinguished by a mission and ethos that is aligned and consistent with the current mission and focus of institutes of technology with an emphasis on programmes at levels 6 to 8 and industry-focused research.   A Technological University will also be expected to play a pivotal role in facilitating access and progression particularly through relationships with the further education and training sector.


The creation of a technological university requires the consolidation of at least two institutions. Each consortium applying for designation will be required to meet the designated criteria and achieve high standards across a range of areas before being designated as technological universities. These include standards relating to the qualifications of staff, the quality of research output, the proportion of students engaged in lifelong learning, amongst other areas.


The Technological Universities Bill was published in December 2015 and its main purpose was to give effect to the recommendations set out in the National Strategy with regard to the institute of technology sector, including the development of a new technological university model. In addition, the Bill provided for a number of important reforms to the governance and operation of the existing institutes of technology. The Bill was subject to amendments in 2016 and 2017, and was passed by Dáil Éireann in January 2018. The Technological Universities Act 2018 was enacted on the 19th March 2018.


Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education

In July 2014 the Minister for Education and Skills established an expert group to examine future funding policy for higher education. The group was charged with identifying and considering the issues relating to the long term sustainable funding of Higher Education in Ireland and to identify options for change. Details of the Members of the Group and its terms of reference are available here: Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education.


The Group held a series of consultations with relevant stakeholders and interested parties during the course of its work. The first phase of consultation focused on the role, value and scale of higher education in Ireland and the implications for its further development. A stakeholder consultation event was held on 30 January 2015. The discussion paper which informed this stage of consultation is available here:  Discussion Paper 1: Role, Value and Scale of Higher Education in Ireland.


The second phase of consultation focused on the use of current resources in the sector and the scope for further efficiencies and effectiveness. A second stakeholder consultation was held on the 26 June 2015. The discussion paper which informed this stage of consultation is available here: Discussion Paper 2: Optimising Resources in Irish Higher Education.


The third and final phase of consultation considered approaches for the future funding of higher education and student supports. A consultation forum was held on the 30 October 2015. A number of reports informed this stage of consultation –


The Group submitted its final report to the Minster and it was published on 11 July 2016. The report is available here - Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education


Expert Group on Future Skills Needs

The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) advises the Government on current and future skills needs and on other labour market issues that impact on Ireland's enterprise and employment growth. The Group brings together industry, academia and State agencies in identifying the overall skills requirements in the economy. Copies of EGFSN reports are issued to individual education and training providers and they provide a valuable input to the development and amendment of course curricula. EGFSN reports are also published on their website at



Innovation 2020: Excellence Talent Impact

On 08 December 2015 the Government published Innovation 2020, Ireland’s 5-year strategy for research and development, science and technology. This strategy is based on a shared vision of Ireland becoming a Global Innovation Leader, driving a strong, sustainable, high employment economy and a better society enjoying a good quality of life. Developing the talent of our population is an underlying aim of this strategy and will be critical to the successful realisation of our national vision, giving Ireland the capacity to exploit opportunities both established and emerging.

Our success in delivering on the ambition in this strategy will depend on our people - undertaking the research, working in and creating successful enterprises, and contributing to the society in which we live. A number of studies were undertaken and their findings were taken into consideration in the development of the Strategy. The studies were in areas including Ireland’s future research infrastructure needs; an independent review of Research Prioritisation; strengthening enterprise R&D; the market focused research centre landscape; the IP capability of Irish firms; and Ireland’s participation in international research organisations. These studies are available at

Innovation 2020: Excellence Talent Impact


Stages of the Education System 

Education is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of six to sixteen or until students have completed three years of second-level education. In practice, however, the norm is to start school at age 4, and 99% of all children are in school by age 5. Some 90% complete upper secondary education.

Children normally attend primary schools for 8 years from age 4 to 12. They transfer 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 examination overseen by the State Examinations Commission.) With effect from 2017, the title of this award has been changed to a Junior Cycle Programme of Achievement, combining both school based and State examinations assessment
  2. An optional one year programme called the Transition Year – an estimated 68% follow this option), which forms part of upper secondary education. Those who do not follow this programme may move directly into the two year Leaving Certificate programme (3)
  3. two year Leaving Certificate programme culminating in a national Leaving Certificate examination operated by the State Examinations Commission. This marks the end of upper secondary education. Leaving Certificate students are generally aged 16 -18 years.

Early school leavers may enter a 2 year Youthreach programme in the Further Education Sector.

Following completion of the Leaving Certificate programme, the majority of students enter Higher Education (c 55%) or Further Education or Training (c 28%), following certificate, diploma and/or degree programmes of varying lengths.

Structure of the National Education System

Structure of the National Education System  IE


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Structure of the National Education System  IE







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Useful links

  1. The Department of Education and Skills is a department of the Irish state with responsibility for education and training. The Programme for Government states that “Education is the key to giving every child an equal opportunity in life. No child should be left behind in economic recovery and we should use our strengthening economy to become a leader in the provision of world-class education and skills.” The Department’s central vision is that the Irish education and training system should become the best in Europe over the next decade. The mission of the Department, through five high-level goals, is to facilitate individuals through learning, to achieve their full potential and contribute to Ireland's social, cultural and economic development (Action Plan for Education 2016-2019 - Department of Education and Skills Strategy Statement).
  2. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) works with learners, teachers, practitioners and parents to develop research-based curriculum and assessment. Its vision is to lead innovation in education for living, learning and working in a changing world. The Strategic Plan 2015-2018 sets out the vision and mission of the organisation and identifies six strategic goals that set the direction of the Council's work over that time.
  3. The National Council for Special Education is a statutory body established under the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act 2004. The Council has embarked on a wide-ranging programme of research on the provision of special education which helps to formulate policy advice to the Minister for Education and Skills and also advises on educational provision for persons with special educational needs, with a particular emphasis on children
  4. The State Examinations Commission was established in March 2003. It is responsible for the development, assessment, accreditation and certification of the second-level examinations of the Irish state: the Junior Certificate - operating at the end of lower second level education - and the Leaving Certificate operating at the end of upper second level education.
  5. The function of SOLAS is to manage, co-ordinate and support the delivery of integrated further education and training by the 16 national Education and Training Boards (ETBs). It also monitors delivery and provides funding based on reliable, good quality data and positive outcomes, and promotes further education and training provision that is relevant to individual learner needs and national skills needs. This includes the needs of business and future skills requirements. ​​​​​​Provision is made available to over 300.000 people annually in Ireland.
  6. The Higher Education Authority is the statutory agency responsible for policy, co-ordination and funding to the universities, institutes of technology (IoTs) and other higher education institutions (HEIs) in Ireland
  7. Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), was established in November 2012 as a new independent, integrated agency to replace a number of other boards and councils. QQI is responsible for promoting quality and accountability in education and training services in Ireland and for the maintenance, development and review of the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ), covering all awards in the State across the education and training sector in public, private, workplace and community settings. It is also the external quality assurance agency for further and higher education and training awards. QQI is responsible for external quality assurance of further and higher education and training (including English language provision). It validates programmes and makes awards for certain providers in these sectors. It is also responsible for developing an International Education Mark and code of practice for institutions catering for international learners from outside the EU/EEA.