Accessing education when you return to Ireland


If you or your children plan to be in full time education when you return to Ireland, you need to know about the services and supports available. This page has information on free pre-school education, enrolling in primary or secondary school, and special needs education.

This page also has information on third level education and apprenticeships in Ireland.

What to do before you come home

Understand the Irish education system

The Irish education system includes primary school (sometimes called national school) and post-primary school (sometimes called secondary school). Your child must get a certain minimum education from the age of 6 to 16, or until they have completed 3 years of post-primary education.

You can enrol your child in infant classes in primary school from the age of 4, but this is not compulsory.

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

There have been changes to the State examinations at post-primary school since 2014. The Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA) is replacing the Junior Certificate. The change includes a classroom-based assessment based on work completed during second and third year.

Some programmes available at senior cycle may be new to you. These include:

Bring documents with you

It is a good idea to keep a file on your or your child's educational history. This will help when enrolling in school or college and can help a new teacher understand your child’s skills and needs.

The file could include the following:

  • Copies of all school reports
  • Reference letters from teachers and/or principals
  • A list of current textbooks and course outlines
  • Results from standardised tests or state examinations
  • Examples of your child’s latest classroom work, especially in maths and English
  • Immunisation and recent medical records

Free pre-school education in Ireland

Pre-school education is usually provided by private childcare providers, although there are financial state supports available.

Ireland has a State-funded pre-school scheme called the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme. Under the scheme, participating centres and playschools provide a free service for a set number of hours over a set period of weeks.

Children can start ECCE when they are 2 years and 8 months and continue until they start primary school (provided they are not older than 5 years and 6 months at the end of the pre-school year). You can check if your child is eligible for ECCE.

You can also apply for the National Childcare Scheme. This is a childcare subsidy for children aged between 6 months and 15 years (children aged 15 do not qualify).

Childcare costs vary widely across Ireland and are highest in urban areas like Dublin and Cork. Read more about your childcare options.

Starting primary or secondary school

Admissions policies in schools

In Ireland, students usually attend their local school, but you can apply for your child to attend any school in the country. You can use the Department of Education’s ‘Find a School’ search tool to find schools you are interested in.

If there are not enough places, the school must give priority based on their admissions policy, as well as the published annual admissions notice. A school must publish their admission notice before accepting any applications for a given year, and it must be on their website. Schools are also required to make the admission notice available to you if you request it in writing. The admission notice must tell you the following:

  • How to get a copy of the school’s admission policy
  • How to get an application form for admission
  • The date when the school will start to accept applications for the year
  • The deadline for receiving applications
  • The date the school will inform you of their decision
  • The date by which you must accept a place

If a school is not over-subscribed, the school should continue to accept all applicants, even after that deadline has passed.

The admission policy must state that the school will accommodate the admission of children with a disability or other special educational needs.

Religion and school admission

Schools cannot use religion as a basis for admission and are not allowed to prioritise students based on their religious beliefs. However, there are some exceptions to this:

  • A school that provides religious instruction or education in a minority religion can prioritise a student of that religion who is looking for admission to a school that provides religious instruction or education consistent with, or similar to, their religious beliefs
  • A school that aims to promote certain religious values can refuse to admit a student who is not of that religious denomination if it can prove the refusal is essential to maintain the ethos of the school

Paying for admission

Most schools cannot charge fees or ask for contributions as a condition for admission or continued admission. Exceptions to this rule include:

  • Fee-charging post-primary schools
  • Boarding schools
  • Schools that provide post leaving certificate courses
  • Further education and training courses run by post-primary schools

Exemption from studying Irish

Irish is a core subject in the national curricula for primary and secondary schools. In limited circumstances, your child can apply to be excused from learning Irish in school, for example, if your child has lived abroad or has a significant learning difficulty.

Enrolling your child in school

You can find information about enrolling your child in school in Ireland in our step-by-step guides:

Education for children with special needs

If your child has special educational needs, they can attend:

  • Mainstream classes in mainstream schools
  • Special classes in mainstream schools
  • Special schools

They may get additional educational support from special education teachers and care support from special needs assistants (SNAs).

If your child has special educational needs, you should talk to the school principal about the type of education that would suit your child. You can also contact your local Special Educational Needs Organiser to find out what learning supports may be available.

You can read more about special needs education in primary schools and special needs education in post-primary schools.

The Department of Education provides information on how your child can get additional teaching support in school (pdf). The National Council for Special Education (NCSE) has published an information booklet for parents of children with Special Educational Needs (pdf).

Returning to Ireland to study at third level

Third-level education in Ireland includes universities, institutes of technology, colleges of education, and independent private colleges.

If you are planning to apply for a third-level place when you return to Ireland, you need to understand the education system and how places are allocated.

If you have a qualification from another country and you want to apply for a place in third-level education, you may need to get recognition for your foreign qualification in Ireland.

Do I qualify for free third-level fees?

To qualify for free fees in Ireland you must meet certain criteria, for example, you must have been resident in Ireland or another EEA member state or Switzerland for 3 out of 5 years before your course start date.

If you do not qualify for free fees, you may still be eligible for EU fee rates. EU fee rates are set by each third-level institution. You should contact the one you are interested in to find out about the EU fee rate and if you qualify.

Post-Leaving Certificate courses (PLCs) have different rules – see our page on PLCs.

Student grant

The Student Grant Scheme is the main financial support scheme for students in Ireland. It is also known as the SUSI grant. You must meet all the conditions of the scheme to qualify for the student grant.

If you do not meet the residence condition, you may still qualify for a fee grant or a postgraduate fee contribution.

Apprenticeship programmes in Ireland

An apprenticeship provides on-the-job training with an employer. You can do an apprenticeship across a wide range of industries such as:

  • Software development
  • Accounting technician
  • Catering (commis chef)
  • Carpentry
  • Plumbing
  • Motor mechanics
  • Electrical

You can find information about apprenticeships on

Page edited: 5 March 2024