Department of Education and Skills
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment
Aidan Clerkin and Rachel Perkins
Educational Research Centre

Overview of Education System

Ireland’s education system is largely centralized. Overall responsibility for education lies with the Minister for Education and Skills, who is a member of the Irish government and responsible to the national parliament. In practice, the Department of Education and Skills (DES), together with a number of bodies under its aegis, is responsible for running the Irish education system. Almost all primary and post-primary schools are state-funded, and are required to operate under both the Education Act (1998)1 and the curriculum, assessment, and evaluation framework established by the DES, based on advice from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The NCCA is a statutory body with responsibility for advising the Education Minister on curriculum and assessment for early childhood education and for primary and post-primary schools. The inspectorate division of the DES has the responsibility of evaluating and reporting on educational provision in all primary and post-primary schools and centers of education supported by the department. Although state-funded, the majority of schools are owned and managed by private organizations, mainly church authorities or religious orders. Individual boards of management govern each school, which are expected to operate in accordance with centrally agreed procedures.

The Irish education system comprises primary, post-primary, third level, and further education. In addition, parents can send their children to one year of early childhood care and education (ECCE) prior to starting primary school. From September 2016, this scheme will be extended, with children eligible for free ECCE between the ages of 3 and 5½, or until entry to primary school.

Primary schools operate an eight year program, consisting of two preprimary years (Junior Infants and Senior Infants), followed by Grades 1 to 6. A child must be at least 4 years old at the start of the school year (September) to enroll in primary school. Most children start school as Junior Infants, at 4 or 5 years of age. The Irish primary education sector comprises state-funded primary schools, special schools, and private primary schools. The state-funded primary schools include religious schools, nondenominational schools, multidenominational schools, and scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge (Irish-medium schools). All state-funded schools follow the Primary School Curriculum.2 Private schools offer a broadly similar curriculum.

Ireland has a variety of post-primary school types—e.g., vocational schools, comprehensive schools, and privately owned and managed secondary schools. The curriculum offered in all school types is substantially the same. Second level education consists of a three year junior cycle followed by a two year senior cycle. The senior cycle can be extended to three years if students opt to complete a Transition Year, following completion of the junior cycle. The Transition Year consists of a year without formal examinations that allows students to experience a range of educational inputs, including work experience placements.3Senior cycle students follow one of three programs, each leading to a terminal state examination—the Leaving Certificate, the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme, or the Leaving Certificate Applied.

At both lower and upper secondary school, students choose one of three levels for mathematics—higher, ordinary, or foundation. At lower secondary, science students are tracked into either higher or ordinary levels of combined science classes, while at upper secondary, students enroll in individual science subjects—Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Agricultural Science, or Applied Mathematics, certified at either the higher or ordinary level. Levels differ mainly in terms of depth, and all sciences have practical elements built into their syllabi.

In 2011, the DES launched Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life, a comprehensive national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy standards.4The strategy complements initiatives such as Maths Week Ireland (an annual, all-island celebration of mathematics) and Discover Science & Engineering (a national science promotion program aiming to increase interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics among students, teachers, and members of the public). The annual Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, funded by private sponsors and supported by the DES, plays a major role in promoting scientific and mathematics education. For example, the 2015 exhibition attracted more than 2,000 project submissions leading to 1,200 exhibited projects, and more than 59,000 attendees, mainly students.

At the secondary level, both mathematics and science have recently received additional funding. The “Project Maths” initiative involves implementing a new mathematics curriculum, with associated professional development, at both the lower and upper secondary levels. Generally, the DES funds mathematics and science education, with additional per capita grants for students who study in the physics and chemistry programs leading to the Leaving Certificate.

Languages of Instruction

Ireland is officially a bilingual state; Irish is the national and first official language, and English is recognized as a second official language.5 In practice, almost all people speak English on a daily basis, while the most recent census data available (2011) indicate that approximately 40.6 percent of the population is able to speak Irish.6 Irish is the community language in pockets of Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) areas and is used daily by some people outside the Gaeltacht. The government aims to ensure that as many citizens as possible are bilingual (Irish and English), and is committed to providing the option of Irish-medium education, both in Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. Thus, in addition to English-medium schools, Ireland has Irish-medium primary and post-primary schools in Gaeltacht areas, and a network of Irish-medium schools in non-Gaeltacht areas (scoileanna lán-Ghaeilge). Because fluency in Irish is not a requirement for enrollment at Irish-medium schools, Irish often is not the mother tongue of students attending these schools. In English-medium schools, English is the medium of instruction for mathematics and science at all grades. In Irish-medium schools, Irish is usually the medium of instruction for mathematics. Until relatively recently, primary level science was sometimes taught in English because a limited range of science texts was available in Irish. Currently, science in Irish-medium schools is typically taught in Irish, at both the fourth and eighth grades.