Accessing the education system on your return to Ireland


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

It also directs you to information on applying and paying for third level education and the new apprenticeship programmes available in Ireland.

What to do before you come home

Understand the system

Even if you completed your schooling in Ireland, you may need to refresh your knowledge of the Irish education system.

The compulsory school age in Ireland is 6 and all forms of pre-primary education are optional. However, children can be enrolled in infant classes in primary schools from the age of 4. Nearly 40% of 4-year-olds and nearly all 5-year-olds attend primary school.

Primary school and secondary school education is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of 6 to 16 or until students have completed 3 years of second-level education.

The Department of Education has a nationwide Find a School search facility on its website.

You or your child may be affected by recent changes to the State examinations at second-level. For example, the Junior Certificate is being replaced on a phased basis by the Junior Cycle Student Award.

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(s) understand your child’s skills and needs. The file can 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 or copies 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 facilities or providers.

Ireland now has State-funded pre-school for children for a set number of hours over a set period of weeks. This is called the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme.

Children can start ECCE when they are 2 years and 8 months of age and continue until they transfer to primary school (provided that they are not older than 5 years and 6 months at the end of the pre-school year).

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

Returning to Ireland and starting school

Admissions policies in schools

The Education (Admission to Schools) Act) aims to make the rules around admissions to schools more structured, fair and transparent. Some of the provisions of the Act have been commenced and are in operation and others are expected to come into operation from 2021.

Schools cannot charge fees or ask for contributions as a condition for admission or continued admission, with the exception of fee-charging secondary schools, boarding schools and admission to post leaving certificate or further education courses run by post-primary schools.

Primary schools are not allowed to 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. Read more about Admissions policies in primary and secondary schools.

Exemption from studying Irish

Irish is a core subject in the national curricula for primary and post-primary schools. In very limited circumstances the Department of Education and Skills allows students to apply to be excused from learning Irish in school. This may apply to a student who has lived abroad for at least 3 years. The student must be also be at least 11 years of age.

Enrolling your child in school

You can find more 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 may attend ordinary classes in mainstream schools or in special classes in these 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 or additional resources 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 for parents and guardians 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, Children with Special Educational Needs (pdf).

Returning to Ireland to study at third level

The third-level education sector in Ireland consists of universities, institutes of technology, and colleges of education. They are collectively known as higher education institutions or HEIs. If you are planning to apply to a HEI when you return to Ireland you need to understand the third-level education system and how places in HEIs are allocated.

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

Qualifying for free third-level fees

As a returning Irish emigrant you may want to know if you or your family members are eligible for free fees at third level.

To qualify for free fees in Ireland you must meet certain criteria. The residence requirement states that 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. Read more about the criteria for free fees in Third-level student fees and charges.

If you do not qualify for free fees you may still be eligible for EU fee rates. EU fee rates are set by each individual higher education institution (HEI). You should contact the HEI you are interested in to find out about the EU fee rate and whether you qualify.

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

New apprenticeship programmes

An apprenticeship provides on-the-job training with an employer. There are many apprenticeship programmes available across a wide range of industries and sectors. For example, apprenticeships are available in software development, accounting technician and catering (commis chef).

You can find information about new apprenticeships on

Page edited: 20 August 2020