An Overview of the Irish Education System

The Irish education system dates back to the 18th century when Irish Catholics were not allowed to have schools by the penal codes, set up the hedge schools which were mainly secret operations. However with time the hedge schools would later be accepted and grow into the modern 21st century schools although with a better defined system.

Children are introduced to the system at the age of 4 years and progress with the system until at least the age of 16 years or having undertaken the junior certificate examination. At this period, education is compulsory to all children between those ages.


With modern families who have all parents working and have little time to home-school their children, the rise of pre-school education. Childrens who haven’t attained school going years are enrolled in playschools and Montessori schools among others. These schools are privatized and are run in a business manner.

Primary schools

Primary education runs for a period of 8 years and the eight year categories are; junior infants, senior infants and first class-sixth class. Majority of the students in primary schools are between the ages of 4 years to 13 years. Students are taught based on the primary school curriculum and this is followed across all schools. Lessons for the junior and senior infants start at 9:00am -1:30pm while for the older children the duration is 9:00am – 3:00pm.

Primary education is culminated by the primary certificate examination.

Secondary schools

At this level, students are involved in three cycles, the junior cycle, transition year and the senior cycle. The junior cycle runs for three years and culminates with the junior certificate examination. This examination can’t be undertaken before attaining an age of fourteen years. In the junior cycle education is majored on what was learned in the primary schools and students take their examinations on all the subjects offered.

After the junior school, students proceed to the transition year which is their fourth year in the secondary education. The fourth year depends on schools thus it can either be compulsory, optional or totally unavailable in some schools. The content covered in this year is decided by the school and the students desires.

After the transition year, students join the senior cycle which lasts for two years culminating into the leaving certificate examination. This cycle tends to build more on the education received in the junior cycle.

Third level education

This is the education offered by colleges, universities, institutes of technology and other national institutions. This is not compulsory and is eligible to students who have done the leaving certificate examination.

Special needs education

The Irish education system factors in special education in order to help the disadvantaged students and those from extremely poor backgrounds. A special needs assistant is employed to the schools in order to look after the students who require extra attention.

Where Does Ireland Rank in Education

There is no basis for making an argument that Ireland does not have a high standard of education. The question should rather be: “Where does Ireland rank in education?” A comparison with Universities of other countries remains the best way to learn if there are areas improve on and those in which the nation is doing well.  Here is a look at the top ranking countries in education.

Recent rankings reveal that Irish Universities are 19th on the log out of the 50 countries they were compared against. The country has held this position for three straight years now – 2016 to 2018. The difference in this ranking is that it does not focus on individual universities; rather, an assessment is made based on the broader systems of each country.

With an average of 64.8%, the country cannot be said to be doing badly. The United States seats comfortably on top of the pile and remain the benchmark for other countries. The higher education systems of each nation are compared using four main factors:

  1. Resources: This is one area where Ireland went one step backwards. They dropped from 25th from 2017 under this category to 30th in 2018. Switzerland blazed the trail in this category and Ireland needs to learn a thing or two from them to stand any chance of ranking better in future. What this means is that the Irish government needs to invest more in the higher education system to match its national wealth. Fundings like this will go a long way to improve research and development.
  2. System Strength: This is a combination of all the scores garnered by Irish Universities that are ranked 700 and above. This is a collective effort to help make comparisons with other countries. So, it is not just a case of having a single university rank high in the country while the others suffer.
  3. Access: Universities ranked within the top 500 globally are considered under this category. The number of places available is divided by the square root of the population. Some more work needs to be done here as well.
  4. Flagship Institution: This takes into account the performance of a country’s highest ranked institution. The assumption is that it reflects how others should perform.

There is some more work to be done if Ireland is hoping to rank higher in future. The recent rankings mark a fall in global ranking and there is an urgent need to buck this trend. With a little more effort it can be achieved.