Children starting school can attend national schools, which are State-aided and do not charge fees, or they can attend one of a small number of private primary schools, which do not get any State funding and which charge fees. The vast majority of children attend the state-aided primary or national schools.
The rules about school attendance apply from age 6. In practice, nearly all 5-year-olds are at school and about half of 4-year-olds in Ireland also attend school. Children may not be enrolled at primary school before the age of 4.
There are various early education or pre-school facilities available but they are mostly private and fees have to be paid. There are some State-funded pre-school facilities, which are usually for children who are disadvantaged or have special needs. The State also funds one year of free pre-schooling under the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme.
There is a system of regulation of pre-schools under the Child Care Act 1991.
The national school system was established in 1831. The national schools were originally meant to be mixed-religion (or multi-denominational as we would describe them today). In practice, that did not happen and the majority of national schools are under the management of one church. However, since the 1970s Educate Together has established many multi-denominational national schools.
When the national schools were originally set up, there was no legislation governing how they were to be run. Circulars and rules issued from the relevant department instead. The Rules for National Schools reflect the fact that they are largely denominational schools.
The Education Act 1998 does not use the term 'national school' and instead uses 'primary' school. The name is not particularly significant except that 'national school' clearly indicates that the school is State-aided while a primary school can be private or State-aided. The following initials are frequently used to describe schools:
NS - National School
GNS - Girls' National School
BNS - Boys' National School
SN - Scoil Naisiúnta (appears before the name rather than after it)
Some schools use the Irish form of their name but that does not necessarily mean that they teach through the medium of Irish. Gaelscoileanna are schools that teach through Irish and they usually, but not invariably, include the word 'Gaelscoil' in their title. Multi-denominational schools sometimes include that description in their title.
Some primary schools are run by religious orders - they are sometimes called convent or monastery schools. They operate under the same rules as other primary schools except for some special rules relating to the appointment of principals and the choice of teacher representatives on the board of management.
The Department of Education and Skills lists schools geographically under Find a School.
There are several special schools - including residential care units and schools for children with disabilities, young offenders, children at risk, children with specific learning disabilities and emotionally disturbed children.
The ownership of primary schools is quite complex. In general, they are privately owned and State-funded. While the school ethos is decided by the owners, the operating rules are largely set by the State.
A Forum on Patronage and Pluralism in the Primary Sector was set up in 2011 to consider how primary school patronage structures might be adapted to reflect changes in society. Its report was published on 10 April 2012.
Private primary schools receive no State support, nor are they subject to State control in relation to curriculum, school day, school year, etc. There is a limited element of State assessment of private schools because the State is required to ensure that children receive a certain minimum education.
Teachers in private primary schools are not paid by the State and there are no requirements about their qualifications.
Many private primary schools do provide the basic curriculum as set out for national schools but they are not obliged to do so.
There is no absolute requirement on schools to admit any particular student. Schools are required to publish their admissions policy.
Schools are subject to equal status legislation and to the constitutional requirements on religion.
All primary schools are obliged to publish a school plan that describes their ethos, admissions policy and objectives.
The admissions policy of most primary schools is fairly straightforward - they give priority to children from their local area, which, for denominational schools, is usually the local parish. Admissions problems can arise in expanding areas where the school cannot cope with extra numbers. Where there is an accommodation problem, the school must give priority on the basis of their admissions policy, sometimes called an enrolment policy. This is drawn up by the board of management and should be available to you on request.
Schools run by the minority religions usually give priority to their co-religionists. The admissions policy for multi-denominational and non-denominational schools and Gaelscoileanna is decided by each school. The admissions policy must comply with section 7 of the Equal Status Act 2000.
If a school refuses to enrol your child you may appeal the decision to the school’s board of management. If this does not succeed you may appeal the decision to the Department of Education and Skills. More information about this is in the Circular 22/02 Appeals Procedures under Section 29 of the Education Act 1998 and in the Department's section document on appeals procedures.
When choosing a primary school, parents may also need to know about the admissions policies of secondary schools. Some secondary schools give priority to the students from certain primary schools.
If you have a question relating to this topic you can contact the Citizens Information Phone Service on 0761 07 4000 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm) or you can visit your local Citizens Information Centre.