Overview of the Irish education system

Education in Ireland

The Irish education system is made up of primary school and post-primary school (also know as secondary school). You must ensure that your child gets a certain minimum education from the age of 6 to 16 or until they have completed 3 years of post-primary education.

Primary and post-primary schools must provide places based on their school admissions policy and admissions notice.

Many people continue on after post-primary to further education and third-level education. State-funded education is available at all levels, unless you choose to send your child to a private school.

Pre-school education

The Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme provides free early childhood care and education for children of pre-school age.

Other than the ECCE, pre-school education is usually provided by privately funded childcare services. However, the National Childcare Scheme (NCS) provides financial support to help parents to meet the costs of private childcare.

The Department of Education also funds some pre-school initiatives focused on children at risk.

Primary education

Children do not have to attend school until the age of 6.

Usually, children start primary school when they are 5 years of age. They start in September - the beginning of the school year.

The Irish primary school curriculum is child-centred.

Generally, children are required to study Irish in school. Some children may be exempted from learning Irish in school.

Find out more about choosing a primary school for your child.

Post-primary education

Post-primary education is provided by different types of post-primary schools.

Post-primary education has 2 stages:

  • Junior Cycle – age 12 to 15 (approximately)
  • Senior Cycle - age 16 to 18 (approximately)

Junior Cycle and examinations

Students generally start the Junior Cycle at the age of 12 and take the Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA) examination at the end of 3 years.

Senior Cycle and examinations

Children can have a 2 or 3-year Senior Cycle. The Senior Cycle is 3 years, if you opt to include Transition Year.

The Transition year allows students to experience a wide range of educational instruction and work experience.

During their final 2 years in the Senior Cycle, students take one of 3 programmes, each leading to a State examination:

  • Established Leaving Certificate
  • Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme
  • Leaving Certificate Applied

The established Leaving Certificate is the main basis on which students are allocated places in universities, institutes of technology and colleges of education.

The Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme has elements of the established Leaving Certificate but concentrates on technical subjects and includes additional modules with a vocational focus.

The Leaving Certificate Applied Programme aims to prepare students for adult and working life through relevant learning experiences. It is for students who wish to follow a practical or vocational programme. It is not recognised for direct entry to third-level courses but it can enable students to take Post-Leaving Certificate courses.

Special needs education for students with disabilities

Educational provision for students with special educational needs ranges from additional support in mainstream schools to specialist support in special schools. A student with a disability may be enrolled in a:

  • Mainstream class with additional support
  • Special class in a mainstream school
  • Special school

Further and adult education

After post-primary school many students move on to further education or third level (see third-level education below). The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) has 10 levels of education and allows you to compare the different standards and levels of education available to you across the education system.

Educational Training Board programmes

The Education and Training Boards (ETBs) run a range of adult and further education and training programmes nationwide including Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) courses. PLCs offer technical and practical education as well as a route to higher and third-level education.

Other programmes offered through ETBs include the Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (second-chance education for adults); Youthreach for early school-leavers; other literacy and basic education; and self-funded evening adult programmes.


Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training and off-the job education. Apprenticeships are offered in traditional craft trades such as plumbing and electrical engineering but also new apprenticeships such as ICT, finance, software development and hospitality.

You must be at least 16 years of age and may need a minimum grade in Junior Cycle or equivalent exam.


Springboard+ provides free higher education courses for people who are unemployed (or were self-employed) and those looking to return to the workforce.

If you are working, you may have to pay a contribution towards course fees. Generally, courses are part-time for one year and offered at Level 6 to 9 on the NFQ. Courses offered include ICT, medical technologies, cybersecurity and sustainable energy.

Third-level education

Third-level education is made up of a number of sectors that are substantially funded by the State.

  • University sector
  • Technological sector
  • Colleges of education

Universities in general are autonomous and self-governing. They offer degree programmes at bachelor, masters and doctorate level.

The technological sector includes technological universities (TUs) and institutes of technology (ITs) which provide programmes of education and training in areas such as business, science, engineering, linguistics and music to certificate, diploma and degree levels.

The colleges of education specialise in training for primary school teachers. Training for post-primary teachers is provided by many third-level institutions. Qualifax provides detailed information on programmes for teacher training.

In December 2022, the Government announced plans to develop joint further and higher education degree programmes. From September 2023, students may start some degree programmes in further education and progress to higher education.

Page edited: 13 December 2022