School & College Education
The Irish education system is designed to prepare students for living in the modern world.
Main pathways within the Irish Education System
Our education typically starts at age six (earlier if you include pre-school) when we enter Primary Level, which provides an extensive learning experience and promotes a rich variety of approaches to teaching and learning.
Students complete a central core of seven subjects designed to provide a good general knowledge, and have options to study two or more additional subjects based on their preferences. Subject can also be taken at Pass or Honours levels.
The choices in subject and levels made during the Junior Cycle are the first significant choices students make that can impact on their future career.
Though school is compulsory only up to the end of Junior Cycle, the majority of students continue to the next level. Employment and training options for school leavers are discussed here.
Secondary Level continues with the Senior Cycle. This is a two or three year program comprising of a Transition Year (1 year optional) and one of three Leaving Cert programmes. Transition year provides an excellent opportunity for students to engage in thinking about possible future careers, and frequently requires that students participate in periods of work experience (this is at the discretion of individual schools). For most students, this is the first time careers are openly discussed and actively investigated.
Students in Secondary Level may choose from one of three Leaving Cert programmes (subject to availability in their schools). The choice of programmes provided is to encourage students to continue in full-time education after the Junior Cycle by providing a range of programmes suited to their abilities, aptitudes and interests.
In all of these programmes students make selections on both subjects and the levels at which they take them (Lower or Higher level). In many schools, aptitude tests are administered by the school guidance counsellor to help guide this process.
The choices made by students at this stage can be very important. Students wishing to pursue careers that require third level courses may find that they will not have the right combination of subjects or levels to be eligible. The importance of this is often underestimated and students should insist that they receive assistance from the school guidance counsellor if they are in any doubt about their decisions.
Third level education in Ireland is made up of Universities, Institutes of Technology, Colleges of education and Private / Independent (hence fee-paying) colleges.
Over 55 percent of students who complete second level now continue on to third level - one of the highest participation rates in the world.
Entry to third level education for Irish students is competitive and based upon performance in the final secondary school examination, the Leaving Certificate. Choosing a third level course is a big commitment. Courses can provide a continuation of general education (e.g some Arts programmes) or focus on a very specific career (e.g. Dentistry) and anything in between.
Many courses offer much more general introductions to their subjects in the form of ‘Omnibus’ programmes – starting with a general introduction to the subject and allowing specialisation in second or third year.
Courses at third level are awarded qualifications at different levels.
Courses in the Universities are almost always 4 years duration (some are longer) and are awarded NFQ Level 8* awards when completed (no award is given if the full course is not completed).
Institutes of Technology (ITs) offer courses of 2 – 4 years and award qualifications based on the amount of the course completed (NFQ Level 6 Certificate after 2 years, NFQ Level 7 Ordinary Degree after 3 years and NFQ Level 8 Honours Degree after 4 years)
Though most students follow their career path in areas associated with their main subject areas, not all do. Third level colleges have qualified Careers Advisors who will work with students who continue to have difficulty, and advise them accordingly.
Around 42% of people with honours primary degrees opt for further study on to Fourth Level education - post-graduate and doctorate (NFQ Levels 9 and 10). This has become a major growth area in recent years and allows students to make much more informed career decisions. Not only can the higher level skills and knowledge you develop enhance your employability but your connection with a new group of peers will increase your network of contacts, creating more opportunities in the future.
For graduate students with no specialisation, there are a number of ICT post-graduate partially subsidised under the graduate skills conversation programmes.
Some graduates also choose to study abroad as there are many scholarships and funded post graduate programes available.
Further Education is the term used by the Department of Education and Science for courses not included in the Primary / Secondary / Tertiary system outlined above. We discuss courses in this category in the sections on Adult Education and Employment Training.
* There are some exceptions to this rule