Navigating the Irish Education System

For many new parents, sending young children to school is a daunting and scary thought. While this is true for any parent (particularly first-time parents) it can be especially true for first-time parents that are not Irish-born. In many cases, the child may not be the only person diving into the Irish education system blind, the parents might be too. Entering a new system of education may be scary, but hopefully this will be a helpful guide to navigating the Irish education system.

Irish Education

If you are looking for information on individual levels of the Irish education system, why not check out the ‘Education’ section in the ‘Living in Ireland’ tab on our website’s homepage.

This article will discuss crèche and montessori, primary school, secondary school, and briefly mention how parents can help their children in the process of getting ready for college. These are the main components of the Irish education system. Within the primary and secondary school sections, buying books and uniforms will also be discussed.

Crèche and Montessori 

For many first time parents, following the birth of their child, the first question they could ask themselves is ‘what next?’ 

For any working parents, it can be useful to know that in Ireland, parents are entitled to seven weeks of parental leave each. This time, however, must be taken during the first two years of a child’s life. This leave can be taken separately. 

Female employees are entitled to take maternity leave, which lasts 26 weeks and can include up to 16 unpaid weeks. Paternity leave is also available to new parents of children under the age of six months old. Paternity leave offers two weeks of paid leave.

Once your parental leave is up, what’s next?

Many parents choose to send their children to a crèche or montessori. This is a form of daycare that operates during the day’s working hours and takes care of children as young as four months old while their parents go to work from Monday to Friday. Choosing the right form of child care is important for a parent’s peace of mind. 

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Image by Naomi Shi

Ireland’s National Childcare Directory could be a good way to begin searching child care options near you. Simply enter your nearest town or county and you will be provided with a list of the local crèches, preschools, Montessori schools, afterschool programs, and childminders.

Primary School

Once a child reaches the age of four or five, they will be able to begin primary school, however they do not have to attend until the age of six. In Ireland, primary school lasts eight years, beginning with Junior and Senior Infants (one year each) and moving on to First Class up to Sixth Class.

The primary school curriculum consists of six areas that include: Language (both English and Irish), Mathematics, Social, Environmental and Scientific Education (History, Geography, and Science), Arts Education (Music, Visual Arts, Drama), Physical Education, and Social Personal and Health Education.

While there are no big exams in primary school, children’s learning is regularly assessed, and all primary schools in Ireland administer standardised tests in English and Mathematics twice during their time in primary school: at the end of first class or beginning of second class, and at the end of fourth class or beginning of fifth class.

It is important to keep in mind that each primary school is different and may administer different tests to make sure the children are learning.

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Image via RDNE Stock Project

There are two types of primary schools in Ireland. These are National Primary Schools (funded by the state with no fees) and Private Primary Schools (charge fees). The majority of children attend national primary schools. There is also an option to send your child to a Gaelscoil where they will learn through Irish. 

There is also an option to send your child to a Catholic school or a non-denominational school. Even if you are not part of the Catholic religion, your child can still attend a Catholic primary school. If this is the case, do not worry, as they will not have to take part in the religious education along with the other children if you do not wish for them to do so.

To find a school, you could use the Department of Education’s Find a School tool. Make sure to apply to your chosen school on time to be guaranteed a place for your child.

Another worry for parents is uniforms. If you have chosen a primary school that does not require a uniform then you can skip this part. If not, then buying your child’s uniform is a very important step. In many schools, the only parts of the uniform that must be purchased in a specific shop are the normal school jumper and the P.E. tracksuit uniform as they contain the school’s crest. 

The School Uniform Direct sells a number of different school uniforms. If your primary school is not listed here, it might be beneficial to ask the school itself where the best place to buy school uniforms is. For the items that do not contain crests, the best places to buy are Marks and Spencers and Dunnes. As early as July, these shops begin selling their school uniform lines for parents to be able to prepare for the school year ahead.

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Image via Grants Uniform website 

Books and school supplies are also an important element for primary school children. While previously, parents and guardians were expected to purchase books and school supplies for their primary school children, Minister Foley and the Department of Education have recently announced a scheme to eliminate this cost.

This initiative provides free schoolbooks, workbooks, and copybooks. As of autumn of this year (2023), parents will not be expected to purchase these materials for their children and the scheme will provide these materials for all primary school children enrolled for the 2023/2024 school year.

Primary schools will be provided with sufficient funding to cover the costs. As these materials are property of the school, they must be returned at the end of the school year. This therefore eliminates some of the stress (both financial and emotional) that comes with enrolling your child in primary school.

Secondary School

Secondary school is a continuation of primary school, and in Ireland this stage of the education system lasts either five or six years. This is the stage where a child will experience more independence in school. Here, students can learn on three levels: higher level, ordinary level, and foundation level. These levels will be determined once the student begins their studies and can be swapped throughout their time in school if they are struggling or finding a subject too easy.

Secondary school is split into two parts in Ireland: the Junior Certificate Programme and the Leaving Certificate Programme.

The Junior Cycle, or Junior Certificate Programme, are the first three years of secondary school. Every student must study English, Irish (unless an exemption has been granted), Maths, and History. Different schools might also provide other subjects that are compulsory for students to study during these first three years. Students will also be able to select some electives to take alongside the mandatory subjects.

Check out this link for the full list of available subjects for Junior Certificate studies. Not all subjects will be available in all secondary schools. 

Students will also take a European language at Junior Certificate level that can later be continued for the Leaving Certificate. The options available are French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Not unlike the subjects, not all languages may be available in all secondary schools.

At the end of the three years, students will sit the Junior Certificate examinations in June. 

Image via robin_rednine

Fourth Year, which is also known as Transition Year, is not a compulsory year that students must take in Ireland. Depending on the secondary school that is attended, transition year might be vastly different. In some secondary schools this year is compulsory to take, in others, it is not. Either way, it is not a year that contributes to the Leaving Certificate Cycle of secondary school.

The final two years of secondary school in Ireland are known as the Leaving Certificate Programme. During these two years, students can take less subjects, and the subjects that are taken are more focused. For example, for the Junior Certificate students can take science as a subject, whereas for the Leaving Certificate this subject is split into Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Phy-Chem, and Agricultural Science.

Like the Junior Certificate, at the end of the two years, students will sit their Leaving Certificate examinations. These results will be used to determine what university they will be accepted in. 

There are also a number of extra language exams that can be taken for students who speak that language at home, such as the Romanian exam, or the Polish exam. This could be a useful way for students who speak another language to take advantage of this and possibly get more points.

In terms of uniform, secondary school uniform is more specific than primary school uniform and therefore must be bought in specific uniform shops. Some secondary school uniforms can be purchased online at School Uniforms Direct or Grants (which also has a physical store on Manor Street and in Blanchardstown).

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Image via School Uniform Direct

Before the beginning of the school year, parents and students will be sent a book list with the necessary books for the school year. As the Junior and Leaving Cycles last two and three years, a brand new set of books will not need to be purchased each year. Schoolbooks can be parched in shops like Eason or online in places such as or Make sure to have a look around and choose the best place for you. 

Some secondary schools have also been making the move to tablets or laptops instead of books, so make sure to check that out in the secondary school you choose.


College in Ireland works on a points system that will be awarded from the June Leaving Certificate Examinations. Extra points can be awarded from sitting higher level Maths and passing (25 points) and for taking the exams in Irish. 

Before sitting the exams students will have filled out the CAO form for their preferences of course and location to study. Based on the points that they are awarded after completing the exams, they will be offered their place in a course.

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Image of CAO Handbook. This book, which can be given to students as a physical copy from their secondary schools, or can be downloaded, contains all the courses available the following academic year, and the number of points required to be accepted into the course. Image via

From all of the exams that a student sits, the highest six will be taken into consideration when looking at the points. This means that there is a maximum of 625 points that can be awarded from sitting the Leaving Certificate Examinations.

For a more in-depth look at the way 3rd Level Education works in Ireland, make sure to check out our website’s page that details the different options for 3rd level education.

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Image via Annie Spratt

While enrolling your child to primary and secondary school, especially in a system of education that you are unsure of and are not acquainted with, can be scary, we hope that this quick guide to the Irish education system has helped and eased any nerves that you may be feeling in taking this new step forward.

Fern Mendoza
Fern Mendoza

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