The Irish Education System
School in Ireland is nationally mandated and funded by the Department of Education and Skills. It is compulsory for students to attend school for ten years, between the ages of 5 and 15, although there is leeway for a year each way. The school cycle officially runs to 18, however, and is divided between Primary School to the age of (roughly 12) and Secondary School to the age of (roughly) 18. Whereas Primary School is a straight run of ascending classes, Secondary School is broken up into the three year Junior Cycle (after which students can legally leave) and the two-year Senior Cycle, with a 'transition year' between the two.
Ireland has a centralised, state-mandated curriculum. Having said that, it is highly flexible and aims to promote each child's unique qualities. Somewhat singulary, the state leaves each educational establishment to formulate its own religious curriculum.
At secondary level, there is a strong focus on the breadth of education as much as depth, with the focus on moulding pupils into well-rounded, widely-knowledgeable individuals.
One aspect of education that varies by area is language. In English speaking areas of Ireland (most of it), English is the primary scholastic communication language with Irish taught as a secondary, although there are a growing number of Gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools) and Naíonraí (total immersion pre-schools to teach kids Irish). In Irish-speaking Ireland, the language of education is Irish, with English, French, Spanish etc being taught as second languages.
The school year is split up into three terms and runs from roughly September to June, with breaks over Christmas and Easter and smaller mid-term breaks in the first two terms. Most institutions close for specific Catholic holidays, eg the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of December 8th.
All education is free in Ireland, including further education (see below) as long as you come from the EU.
Types of school
While all Primary Schools adhere to the same curriculum, there are various types of Primary Schools that kids can attend. National Schools educate most students and are governed by the local church diocese. Gaelscoileanna, Irish-speaking schools in English-speaking areas, account for about 10% of primary students. Multi-denominational Schools are governed by charities and accept children from all faith backgrounds. Preparatory Schools, as the name suggests, are fee-paying primary schools that receive no government funding, albeit they still have to adhere to the curriculum. Primary school education cumulates in the Junior Certificate exams.
Voluntary Secondary Schools, or just 'secondary schools' are similar to their National Primary counterparts, in that they are governed by religious communities, and educate the majority of students. Vocational Schools are governed by Vocational Educational Committees, and teach non-academic vocational subjects. Comprehensive schools meld these two flavours together, and provide a variety of academic and vocational subjects under one roof. Gaelcholáistí are the secondary equivalent of the above-mentioned Gaelscoileanna. There are also fee-paying independent schools that offer secondary education, and grind schools which tend to concentrate on the Senior Cycle syllabus and one-year 'retake' Leaving Certificate programmes.
Tertiary Education consists of academically-focused Higher Education bodies, and vocational institutes moderated by the FETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council. Fees for courses offered by both are free for EU citizens.
Some FETAC courses can count towards Bachelor's degrees. Areas covered are usually vocational, such as childcare, nursing, farming, skilled apprenticeships and tourism.
University admissions are centralised through the CAO, the Central Applications Office. Preference is given to candidates who achieve high grades in the Leaving Certificate.
Known as 'private tuition' or 'shadow education' elsewhere in the world, grinds in Ireland are incredibly popular, and are usually employed before the certificate exams, both Junior and Leaving. In 2007, 40% of all students working towards the Leaving cert paid grinds more that 5,000 Euro each.
Since the recession this sector has taken a diminishing blow, but still remains popular.