Ireland’s educational system, educational challenges and the purposes of improvement

Written by Stefania Grace Tangredi

Source: Journal of Rural Studies

Ireland’s territory is divided into two parts: Ireland, sometimes referred to as “the Republic of Ireland”, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.  Ireland is a member of the European Union.

The population of the country in 1926 was 2,971,922, increasing to 4982 million in 2023. Ireland became a free state in 1922, a parliamentary democracy governed by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland.  The official languages are both English and Irish.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, the Irish economy was growing and increasing not only in the political field but also in the educational field. In 2008 unemployment increased, and GDP dropped in growth. The recovery plan agreed upon at that time required a significant cut in public spending and a range of measures to stabilize finances and return to growth; Ireland exited successfully at the end of 2013. The Expenditures on Education by the Government are 3.72 % as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP); this is lower than both the regional average (4.6%) and the average for its income group (4.5%).

Ireland’s educational system

In Ireland, attendance at National Schools is free, and the State must provide free primary education. Some private elementary schools charge a fee. Attendance at most secondary schools is free, but some private schools charge a fee for the families, even in secondary education. Sometimes the schools bear the expenses for books, uniforms and exams. The history of Ireland has been shaped by the influence of religious institutions in society, including the education system; therefore, the Catholic Church plays an important role in education: most primary schools, like the National Schools, are run by the Church and subsidized by the State. Most Secondary Schools – private schools for secondary education – are also run by Catholic institutions. Education in Ireland is obliged from age 6 to 16, or until students have completed three years of secondary education.

Source: Europe Academy of Religion and Society.

Elementary school consists of eight grades. Pupils typically advance to secondary school at age 12. The Second Level is divided into a Junior Cycle and a Senior Cycle. Both general and vocational subjects are taught in secondary education.

Secondary education includes secondary institutions, vocational, comprehensive and community colleges. The number of young people continuing their education after compulsory education is high: more than 90 % of 16-year-olds, 75 % of 17-year-olds, and about 50 % of 18-year-olds attend school full-time.

Education in Ireland: outlook for growth

The challenges faced by Ireland for the education system are multiple. Ireland is trying to accommodate a rapid increase in enrolment. However, primary enrolment is declining after reaching a peak in 2018, and post-primary enrolment continues to grow strongly, increasing by 34,300 between 2017 and 2021. Full-time postsecondary education enrollment is also rising rapidly, with an increase of nearly 16,400 between 2017 and 2021 and 13 additional postsecondary schools since 2017, reflecting the substantial increase in enrolment.

The total number of teachers has increased by over 7,804 since 2017, from 64,692 to 72,496. The student-teacher ratio in elementary schools has decreased from 15.3 to 13.7 since 2017 and from 12.8 to 12.2 in secondary schools.

Not only is Ireland trying to increase enrolment, but it’s also promoting a more pluralistic school system that better accommodates diversity, especially religious diversity, in line with the changing profile of the population. A number of schools in Ireland, from 2019, have started to become the first transfer from catholic to multi-denominational.  The schools will implement programs to encompass and include different beliefs and values.  

The participation of children with special education needs has increased in the education system. Ireland wants to provide an education system that supports their participation and advancement to ensure they can reach their full potential. It is essential that schools have policies in place to deal with any difficulties of the students.

To maintain the quality and performance of all levels of the education system and to face the work world, to keep up with the changing world, the education and training system will play a key role in meeting existing and emerging skill needs by providing education, training, and skill development opportunities for those entering the workforce, as well as ongoing upskilling and retraining of existing labour market participants.

How did Ireland face the educational issues during covid-19 in 2020

According to a UN report, nearly 190 countries have imposed school closures, affecting 1.5 billion children and young people. As so, students had to start to adopt new learning, “learning from home education,” and teachers and educators had to change their way of teaching. The UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay guaranteed that United Nations was providing aid to adapt to this situation, especially since they were working with countries to ensure the continuity of learning for everybody, particularly disadvantaged children and youth who tend to be the hardest hit by school closures.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, 94% of students said they used a combination of textbooks and digital tools. Many students (79%) indicated no difficulties had been experienced, and if they had, the issues would have been addressed promptly. Most young people completed their assignments and received the teacher’s feedback.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Bullying in schools

Even if a lot of children and adolescents attend Catholic Schools, a growing number of people do not practice the religion and may attend Christenings and Communions just because it is part of Irish culture rather than having any genuine belief in the practice, even though the majority of schools in Ireland are Catholic schools. Nearly 80% of the population describes their religion as Catholic, according to the 2016 Census.

Religious practicians and committed students feel vulnerable as they are a minority in Irish schools now.

To avoid this problem, Irish schools must have a code of behaviour and a specific educational program and procedures that together form the school’s plan to help students in the school to behave well and learn well. Also, school support teams will be available to help students experiencing bullying, and all the staff will be trained as part of the new action plan.

Disadvantaged people in Ireland

Despite having the fastest-growing economy in Europe, poverty levels in Ireland are stable. Children are more likely than the overall population to experience ongoing poverty.  More than 62,000 children live in persistent poverty, and others are in danger of poverty. One in five parents do not have enough food to feed their children. Children who travel a lot, like the Roman children, are particularly vulnerable. The term “Roma” is used by the Council of Europe to refer to Roma, Sinti, Kale and related groups in Europe, including Travellers and the Eastern groups, like Dom and Lom, and covers the wide diversity of the groups concerned, including persons who identify themselves as “Gypsies”.

Source: CSO Ireland.

From statistical data 2016, 2 % of 10-year-olds in Ireland cannot read and understand a simple text by the end of primary school. Those in rural areas are potentially negatively affected by difficulty in maintaining involvement in education or accessing facilities.

Educational disadvantages are often related to socio-economic factors, for example, inadequate income, poor housing,  health or family problems. Children who have been born into poor households or live in deprived areas are most subject to educational failure and subsequent labour market exclusion. Young people who experience social disadvantage are at a higher risk of being exposed to factors that impact their opportunity to progress successfully through first and second-level education.

Conclusions and recommendations

Ireland’s education system has shown significant strengths and achievements while facing challenges. The country is firmly committed to providing quality education to its citizens, evident through its well-structured and accessible education infrastructure. Ireland’s emphasis on early childhood education, investments in technology, and dedication to inclusivity have contributed to a positive learning environment for students of various ages and backgrounds.

The education system has many merits, but some areas can be improved to enhance its overall effectiveness:

Ireland should invest more than it does in education, particularly at the primary and secondary levels; this is crucial to maintaining high-quality teaching standards and facilities. Adequate funding will ensure all schools have the necessary resources to support students’ learning needs.

Despite progress, educational disparities persist in some regions and among specific demographics. The government should focus on narrowing these gaps by implementing targeted interventions, such as improved access to resources and specialized support for disadvantaged communities.

Continuous professional development for educators is essential to keep up with evolving teaching methodologies and technologies. Encouraging and providing opportunities for teachers to enhance their skills will benefit the student’s learning experience. As the education landscape becomes increasingly demanding, prioritizing mental health support services for students, parents, and educators is vital; creating a positive and supportive learning environment will help students thrive academically and emotionally.


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