The Irish secondary (also known as post-primary) school cycle is generally 5 or 6 years long. Children begin their secondary school studies around the age of 12 and leave around the age of 17 or 18, having taken two state exams in that period. Whether you are coming to Ireland for the first time or whether you are returning after an absence, you may find the Irish education system very exam-focused. However, a lot of changes and improvements have been made to the educational system over recent years and a far greater range of options is now open to students than in the past.
Most schools offer students the option of a Transition Year after they have completed the first 3 years of secondary education. This allows students to explore non-academic interests, whether they are social, creative or linked to the world of business. It gives them a chance to look around and to mature before moving into the Senior Cycle, which will lead them to the final Leaving Certificate exam. The exam system itself has also changed. The Intermediate Certificate examination has been replaced by the more flexible Junior Certificate and final year students may now choose from 3 different Leaving Certificate programs. They can take the tradition (established) Leaving Certificate or they can choose from the Leaving Certificate Vocational Program or the Leaving Certificate Applied Program, both of which focus on a student’s more practical and technical abilities.
The Irish secondary school year stretches from the first week in September to the first week in June. If your child is going in to a Junior Certificate Class or a Leaving Certificate class, however, they will not finish until later in June, as they will be taking their exams at that time.
The post-primary school system includes secondary schools, vocational schools, community or comprehensive schools and private secondary schools. The majority of Irish children go to secondary schools, which are privately owned and managed and often run by religious orders, although the teachers in these schools are generally lay staff. The majority of secondary schools are free, but there are fee-paying schools also. Vocational schools and community or comprehensive schools are all free. These schools tend to provide both academic and technical education and they often provide additional further education opportunities for school-leavers and adults in the local community. There are a small number of private international schools in Ireland including a French school, a Japanese school and a German school.
You should gather as much information as possible about the schools in which you are interested. Schools can vary quite considerably in the ways in which they operate and the emphasis they put on areas such as exams, sports, the arts, personal development, religion, social affairs, European languages and practical skills acquisition. Talk to teachers and, if possible, to other parents in order to see whether the school is likely to meet the needs of your particular child. Some schools will have a waiting list. They may favor children who already have a relative at the school or who are related to a past student. Some schools favor children coming from particular primary schools. You will need to investigate the admissions policy of the school in which you are interested and in general you should plan the enrolment of your child well in advance.
If your child wishes to go to university or another third-level institution, they will need to score enough points in their Leaving Certificate exams. They will receive points for the 6 best grades they receive with the highest points going to an A1 in a paper at Honors level. Most students take 7 subjects in the Leaving Cert. The points they need for third-level courses will depend on the subject they wish to study. If they are interested in one of the very competitive courses such as Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry or Law, they will need to score well over 500 points in their exams. The highest possible number of points is 600.
Education in state-funded second-level schools is free. Fees charged by private secondary schools can vary considerably. You will need to check with each individual school. Whatever school you choose, you will need to pay for school books and, where appropriate, school uniforms. Usually, you will also have to pay for extra-curricular activities.
Apply directly to the school in which you are interested, as early as possible. Ask about their admissions policy. Some will have waiting lists and, if they have developed links with a particular primary school, they may favor children coming from that school. Some schools may ask your child to sit an entrance exam, for which they will charge a fee. There are some organizations that will arrange to place a child in an Irish secondary school for a fee.
For assistance in selecting schools or finding day care centers (crèches) in your area, the following web site may be helpful: www.childcare.ie.