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.

It 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 and post-primary school (also 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 secondary school to further education and third-level education.

There are recent changes to the State examinations at second-level. 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 education 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 text books and course outlines
  • Results of 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 also apply for the National Childcare Scheme. This is a childcare subsidy for children aged between 6 months and 15 years.

Childcare costs vary widely across Ireland and are highest in urban regions 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 online Find a School search tool to find schools you are interested in.

If there is not enough places, the school must give priority based on their admissions policy and Annual Admission Notice. 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.

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

  • Fee-charging secondary schools
  • Boarding schools
  • Post leaving certificate or further education courses run by secondary schools

The Education (Admission to Schools) Act aims to make the rules around admissions to schools more structured, fair and transparent.

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's needs. 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, 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: 29 June 2022