Ireland Country Profile - Education System

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System Structure 

Education is compulsory in Ireland for all children aged between 6 and 16. There are four levels of education: primary, secondary (post primary), further and higher education. All education is state-funded, including higher education, which is free to all students from EU/European Economic Area (EEA) countries. State-funded schools are the responsibility of the Department of Education and Skills and include religious schools, non-denominational schools, multi-denominational schools and Gaelscoileanna (Gaelic/Irish taught schools). From the age of 16, students can choose to study for the Leaving Certificate, which is an entry qualification for university. Ireland has a high-performing education system and has been ranked 9th in the world for maths and science results (OECD 2014).

Academic Year

The academic year in Ireland runs from August or September to June or July, generally with three terms or semesters. Holidays vary depending on the school but most children have one week in autumn, two weeks at Christmas, a week in February and two weeks at Easter. The summer break is from the 1st July to the end of August. The Irish school day generally starts at 9am and finishes at 3pm.

Higher Education

Ireland has seven public universities and a number of specialist colleges and institutes of technology. All seven universities appear in the QS World Rankings, with the oldest -Trinity College Dublin - being also the most prestigious. Ireland’s universities are popular with international students as all degree programmes are taught in English and tuition is free (for students from the European Union). Admission to university is by successful completion of a secondary school Leaving Certificate or equivalent qualification. All students must apply through the Central Applications Office which gives additional information about entrance requirements and courses.


Students from countries within the EU/EEA and Switzerland pay no tuition fees at Irish universities. However, all students must contribute a one-off ‘registration fee’ of around €3,000 (£2,241) towards equipment, examinations and administration costs. Students from outside the EU can expect to pay annual tuition fees of around €10,000 (£7,476) to €21,600 (£16,148) and around €31,000 (£23,176) to €50,000 (£37,380) for medicine and related subjects. For more information about fees, consult the Irish Government’s Education in Ireland website. Student grants are available to EU nationals and a range of scholarships are offered by individual universities. You can find more information about grants here.


Irish universities offer a wide range of degree courses in varied subjects. As well as the seven principal universities, there are also 14 institutions of technology, seven colleges of education and a range of tertiary institutions providing specialist programmes in fields such as art and design, medicine, business, theology, music and law. Ireland operates a two-tier degree system consisting of Bachelor’s degrees (which take three to four years to complete) and Master’s degrees (one to two years to complete). Students generally need to complete both levels before considering doctoral (PhD) studies in Ireland.


Research in Irish universities has seen heavy investment in recent decades and is now ranked on a par with countries such as France and Australia. The country has two major funding programmes, Science Foundation Ireland and Programme for Research at Third Level Institutions. Research activities are further overseen by the Irish Research Council which was established in 2012 to fund research within all disciplines in order to enhance Ireland’s international reputation as a centre for innovation and learning.

Primary and Secondary Education

The Irish primary education sector consists of state-funded primary schools and private primary schools. State-funded primary schools are also known as ‘national schools’. State-funded schools include religious schools, non-denominational schools, multi-denominational schools and Gaelscoileanna (schools that teach through Irish). Children attend primary school from age 5 (Junior Infants) to age 12 (Senior Infants). Following primary education children attend secondary school (post primary) up to the compulsory age of 16 with approximately 90% of students staying on to take the Leaving Certificate exam at age 18 or 19. Secondary schools are divided into three types of school:

  • Community and comprehensive schools: Provide a broad curriculum of core and vocational subjects.
  • Vocational schools and community colleges: Provide a wide range of practical and academic subjects. They are also the main providers of adult education in Ireland.
  • Voluntary secondary schools: Privately owned and managed schools which may be fee paying or non-fee paying.


The Irish Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Scheme provides a free year of early childhood care and education for children of pre-school age. Children are eligible for free pre-school funding if they are over the age of 3 years and 2 months. The scheme funds pre-school care for 3 hours per day over 38 weeks. Parents must contribute additional fees for nursery or pre-school care over this time limit. Children follow a play-centred curriculum with basic numeracy and literacy tuition. While pre-school in Ireland is voluntary, just over 90% of children are currently enrolled.

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