Understanding the School System in Ireland

School system in Ireland

Understanding the School System in Ireland

Ireland’s education system is well regarded. In fact, in 2016, an OECD report found Ireland had the second-highest percentage of people (44% of those aged 25-64) with a third-level education in the EU, behind only the UK.

Families need to know the local school system as it is vital for integrating into life in a different country. So, if you are relocating to Ireland and want to have a general understanding of the school system in Ireland, including the typical age milestones, here’s all you need to know.

When is the school year in Ireland?

Like most countries in the northern hemisphere, the Irish school year begins in the autumn and ends in early summer. Most schools in Ireland start the school year at the end of August and finish in either late May or early June.

Within this school year, there are two terms. Autumn term runs from the beginning of the school year to the Christmas/New Year holidays when children have two weeks of holiday. The second term is spring term and that runs from January until the summer holidays. Likewise, the Easter break, which is also two weeks, is within the spring term.

Also, in the middle of each of the two terms, there is a mid-term break (in October and then February) which is usually one week in duration.

How does pre-school work in Ireland?

Before children go to primary school, which is the first level of obligatory school, parents can choose to send their children to what is universally known as pre-school. There are different types of pre-schools such as playschools and Montessori schools. Of course, this is optional and the decision of the parents.

the school system in Ireland

The starting age of children in each school will depend on the rules of that school. Generally speaking, children begin their pre-school education at 3 years of age.

Financial support is available to parents in the form of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme.

How does primary school (National School) work in Ireland?

In Ireland, parents usually send their children to primary school at the age of 4 or 5 (but note that all children in Ireland must begin their formal education before the age of 6). The first two years of primary school are known as Junior Infants and Senior Infants. Children then move into First Class, which is their third year at primary school. Children continue to attend primary school until the end of Sixth Class, meaning the primary school cycle is eight years in total. Children finish school at either 12 or 13 years of age.

At primary school level, parents may choose to send their child to an Irish-speaking school (called a Gaelscoileanna), where all subjects are taught through the Irish language. There is usually a Gaelscoil (Irish school) local to every area. Otherwise, all other schools use English as the first language, but will also cater to students who have other language needs. Additionally, there are special schools for children who may have special educational needs, including learning disabilities.

The majority of primary schools in Ireland are state-sponsored, meaning they are free to attend. As long as the school is local to the area where you live, all children are eligible.

How does secondary school (post-primary education) operate in Ireland?

When they complete primary school, children in Ireland attend secondary school (called ‘high school’ in the United States). Many secondary schools (usually called comprehensive or community schools) are free, but there are also private, fee-paying schools.

Irish school system

At the end of the third year of secondary school (known as the Junior Cycle), children complete their first state examinations known as the Junior Certificate. At this stage, children may leave secondary education.

Most schools offer a transition year after the completion of the Junior Cycle. Transition year is a year dedicated to vocational and social activities. Upon completion of the transition year, students begin preparation for the Leaving Certificate examinations, which are the second and final formal state examinations offered in Ireland. This three-year period (including the transition year) is known as the Senior Cycle.

Including the transition year, the full secondary school cycle in Ireland is typically six years. That means students typically finish school in Ireland at 18 or 19 years of age.

The majority of post-primary education in Ireland is state-sponsored, meaning schools are free to attend. As long as the school is local to the area where you live, all children are eligible for a place. However, there are also private, fee-paying schools available which may have enrolment conditions.

School in Ireland – useful terms

  • Primary School – The first six years of formal schooling in Ireland.
  • Secondary School – The second five/six years of formal schooling in Ireland.
  • Junior Certificate – The exams (and certificate) awarded to Irish students at the end of the Junior cycle of education (at age 14/15 at commencement of school year). Known colloquially as the ‘Junior Cert’.
  • Leaving CertificateThe exams (and certificate) awarded to Irish students at the end of the Senior cycle of education (at age 16/17/18 at commencement of school year). These are the final school exams. Known colloquially as the ‘Leaving Cert’.
  • Transition Year (TY) – The optional ‘bridge’ year at the start of the Senior cycle, focusing on social and vocational development.


Full overview

Third-level education

After completing their secondary school education, students may choose to attend university or vocational college. Indeed, many choose to take a gap year before doing so, but this is a purely individual choice.

Learn about our Cultural Orientation for Living and working in Ireland course.

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