The Republic of Ireland's education system is quite similar to that of most other western countries. There are three distinct levels of education in Ireland: primary, secondary and higher (often known as third-level) education. In recent years further education has grown immensely. Growth in the economy since the 1960s has driven much of the change in the education system.
The Department of Education and Science, under the control of the Minister for Education, is in overall control of policy, funding and direction, whilst other important organisations are the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland and the Higher Education Authority, on a local level Vocational Education Committees are the only comprehensive system of government organisation. There are many other statutory and non-statutory bodies which have a function in the education system.
All children must receive compulsory education between the ages of six and fifteen years in Ireland. The Constitution of Ireland allows this education to be provided in the home: this has caused much legal wrangling for years as to the minimum standards required for home education since the constitution does not provide for the State to define these minimum standards.
Compulsory education in the Irish language was abolished in 1973, although a student attending a school which receives public money must be taught the language. Certain students may get an exemption from Irish; these include students who spent a significant period of time abroad or students with a learning difficulty.
English is the primary medium of instruction at all levels, except in Gaelscoileanna: schools in which Irish is the working language and which are increasingly popular. Universities also offer degree programmes in diverse disciplines, taught through Irish, not just the Irish language and related literature.
The Primary School Curriculum (1999) is taught in all schools. The document is prepared by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and is perhaps unusual in leaving to church authorities the formulation and implementation of the religious curriculum in the schools they control. The curriculum seeks to celebrate the uniqueness of the child:
- ...as it is expressed in each child's personality, intelligence and potential for development. It is designed to nurture the child in all dimensions of his or her life -- spiritual, moral, cognitive, emotional, imaginative, aesthetic, social and physical... 1
The Primary Certificate Examination (1929 - 1967) was the terminal examination at this level until the first primary school curriculum, Curaclam na Bunscoile (1971), was introduced, though informal standardized tests are still performed. The primary school system consists of eight years: Junior and Senior Infants (corresponding to kindergarten), and First to Sixth Classes.
Types of School
Primary education is generally completed at a gaelscoil, multidenominational school, or national school. Some Multidenominational schools and gaelscoileanna are actually national schools themselves. As is characteristic of much of the rest of education system, the parent has great choice in choosing the type of school appropriate for the child.
Gaelscoileanna are a very recent innovation, started only late in the last century. The Irish language is the working language in these schools. They are particularly en vogue in non-Irish speaking areas.
- Multidenominational schools are another recent innovation. They are generally under the patronage of a limited company without share capital. They are often opened due to parental demand and all are welcome.
National schools date back to the introduction of state primary education in the mid-19th century. They are usually controlled by of a board of management under diocesan patronage and often include a local clergyman. The term national school has of late become partly synonymous with primary school in some parts.
Most students attend and complete secondary education, with approximately eighty percent of school-leavers taking the terminal examination, the Leaving Certificate. Secondary education is generally completed at a community school, a comprehensive school, a vocational school or a voluntary secondary school.
There is great freedom in choosing the type of school the child will attend. The education system emphasis at second level is as much on breadth as on depth; the system attempts to prepare the individual for society and further education or work. This is similar to the education system values in Scotland.
Types of Programme
The document Rules and Programmes for Secondary Schools published by the Department of Education and Science sets out the minimum standards of education required at this level. Examinations are overseen by the State Examinations Commission. Additional documents set out the standard in each element, module or subject.
- The Junior Cycle builds on the education received at primary level and culminates with the Junior Certificate Examination. The Junior Certificate Examination is taken after three years of study and not before fourteen years of age.
- The Transition Year is a one-year informal course which is taken by an increasing number of students. The content of this is left to the school to model on the local needs often focusing on work placement and related projects.
- The Senior Cycle builds on the junior cycle and culminates with the Leaving Certificate Examination. The Leaving Certificate Examination is taken after at least two years of study after the Junior Certificate Examination.
Higher (or third-level) education awards in Ireland are conferred by Dublin City University, Dublin Institute of Technology, Higher Education and Training Awards Council, National University of Ireland, University of Dublin and University of Limerick. These are the degree-awarding authorities approved by the Irish Government and can grant awards at all academic levels. The Pontifical University of Maynooth is essentially a private university established by the Roman Catholic Church - there is no requirement in the law of Ireland to recognise its degrees. The King's Inns of Dublin has a limited role in education specialising in the preparation of candidates for the degree of barrister-at-law to practice as barristers.
Some colleges are constituent or linked colleges of universities, whilst others are designated institutions of the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. The latter include the Institutes of Technology, Colleges of Education, and other independent colleges. Some colleges have delegated authority from the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, this allows them to confer and validate awards in their own name.
Some institutions have completed a process of modularizing their courses (others are still in a transition phase), mostly using the ECTS system. The Bologna process and applied research are the current concerns of national educational policy, additional concerns include the structures of the National University of Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin.
The Marks & Standards document, offered by most institutions, can be consulted for information on the range and criteria set down for awards, while programme specifications offer additional information. In contrast to practice in the rest of the education system, entry tends to be highly competitive for school leavers; the so called "Points Race".
The subdegree awards still maintain an important and respected position in Ireland. The pattern of academic degrees is similar to that found in most other countries: Bachelor's degree at first level, Master's degree, and Doctorate.
Designatory titles and the abbreviations used for degrees generally follow international style, particularly American and British. Since most Bachelor's and Master's degrees are awarded with honours the abbreviations do not include this distinction - thus Hons is never used.
Ortelius Level 1
The Certificate (HETAC) is a one-year course and is generally an introductory, foundation or skills-based qualification. It is awarded exclusively by the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC). The certificate will not be awarded after June 2006.
Traditionally, the National Certificate (NCert) and National Diploma (NDip) have been by far the most common awards at this level and cover a wide variety of disciplines. It was announced in July 2004 that these awards would be replaced by the Higher Certificate and Ordinary Bachelor Degree respectively in 2005.
Ortelius Level 2
The Ordinary Bachelor Degree, a three year ab initio course, is generally only offered by the University of Dublin or a College of Education; usually a Bachelor in Arts or Bachelor of Education respectively.
The Honours Bachelor Degree, a four year ab initio course, is offered in a wide variety of disciplines, including arts, business, engineering, law, medicine, and science, and is offered by default in many colleges and all universities.
Ortelius Level 3
The Graduate Diploma or Higher Diploma is a taught course often requiring a research dissertation. The course is often offered as a reorientation or professional qualification required for entry into professions such as teaching or other professions requiring the acquisition of new skills after graduation.
The Master's Degree is awarded as either a research or a taught degree, or a combination of both. It is often awarded after the completion of a Bachelor's Degree or a Graduate Diploma and takes between one and three years. Unusually the degree is generally awarded at honours level.
The Doctorate Degree is generally offered after original research. The most common is the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Some degrees are particularly indigenous such as the Degree of Doctor of Celtic Studies which is offered by the National University of Ireland.
Further Education was for many years the "poor relation" of education. There were many different, often poorly defined, awards offered by a multitude of bodies, both ad-hoc and statutory. Typical areas included apprenticeships, childcare, farming, retail, and tourism. These are typically areas of the economy that do not depend on multinational investment and recognition.
The Further Education and Training Awards Council confers awards in the extra-university system. Further Education has expanded immensely in recent years helped by the institutions, and because of this the type and range of these awards have been formalized to restore confidence.
1) NCCA Primary School Curriculum, Chapter 1 (file format: chm)