Post-primary, or secondary school as it is more commonly known in Ireland, is an exciting time for many teenage Irish students as they move from childhood through adolescence and into young adulthood. However, this transition can sometimes be challenging, with a lot to consider. This is especially true for families moving to Ireland from abroad or those returning home after years away. If you fall into this category, then you need to be as informed as possible, both for you and your child(ren).
Students are usually 12 or 13 when they commence secondary school in Ireland and around 18 when they finish it. Much like primary school education, post-primary education is compulsory for all students in Ireland until they reach the age of 16. However, the vast majority of secondary school pupils stay in school until they graduate, typically at 18. From there, most students either enter third level education or start a skilled training apprenticeship.
Post-primary education in Ireland is broadly broken down into two distinct cycles: the Junior Cycle culminating with the Junior Certificate exam and the Senior Cycle that is bookended with the Leaving Certificate exam. One additional year between the cycles, referred to as Transition Year (or fourth year), can be optional or compulsory depending on the school you choose to attend.
The majority of secondary schools in Ireland are free, but a select number of privately-run voluntary schools charge fees. Community and comprehensive schools, as well as vocational schools, are all funded on the basis of an annual budget and have no fees attached.
Admissions and Enrolment
In essence, the admissions and enrolment process for secondary schools in Ireland is determined on a school-to-school basis. The Department of Education and Skills states that:
“It is the responsibility of the managerial authorities of all schools to implement an enrolment policy in accordance with the Education Act, 1998. The enrolment policy must be non-discriminatory and must be applied fairly in respect of all applicants.”
The Department’s role in this process is to make sure that all students in a certain geographical area have access to a school. However, in more populated areas some schools are invariably more popular than others, and these schools may set some guidelines such as an entrance exam or give preference to siblings of current or past students ahead of those without any such family connections to the school. Consequently, some students may not receive their first choice when it comes to the secondary school in Ireland that they want to attend but by applying early, parents stand a better chance of getting their child into the school of their choice.
Range of secondary schools in Ireland
There are three main types of secondary school in Ireland: voluntary schools, vocational schools and comprehensive schools.
Voluntary schools, which are sometimes confusingly referred to as secondary schools, are privately-owned and managed, they can be fee-paying or non-fee-paying. By contrast, Vocational schools are state-established and administered by Education and Training Boards (ETBs).
Comprehensive or community schools are generally denominational, meaning that they are guided by a religious doctrine, typically Roman Catholic, though a small minority of schools follow a Protestant doctrine. Community and comprehensive schools are managed by Boards of Management of differing compositions.
Junior Cycle and Junior Certificate Exam
The first three years of secondary school in Ireland are part of the Junior Cycle, which culminates with the Junior Certificate exam.
The Junior Certificate exam is a state-administered examination and is usually undertaken by students who are 15 or 16 years old who have completed three years of post-primary education. It is primarily a written exam, although certain subjects such as art and music have a project-based element to them, while Irish and other languages have both an oral and aural test too.
Students can choose either higher or ordinary level courses in all subjects they choose, with foundation level also being available in Irish and Mathematics. Students who take the higher level sit a more challenging exam than those in ordinary level, and students who take the ordinary exam take a more challenging exam than those in foundation level. Though a student’s Junior Certificate performance has no bearing on his or her admission to college or university or a training course, many students and parents prefer to take on the challenge of higher courses for the Junior Cycle, thus priming the student for the Leaving Certificate, the results of which do have a bearing on entry to college or university.
In 2014, the Junior Cycle Student Award (JCSA) was introduced as a replacement for the Junior Certificate exam. However, to date only English has been rolled out under the new system, which places more of an emphasis on continuous assessment and project-based work. Aside from English, all other subjects continue to be examined, assessed and marked under the old Junior Certificate format. This dual-pronged approach will continue until 2021 when the last of the Junior Certificate subjects will be replaced with the new JCSA system.
At present, all students in secondary school in Ireland must take courses and sit exams in Irish (unless an exemption has been granted). The Department of Education and Skills is currently awaiting a review that will assess the fairness of certain Irish exemptions, including those from returning emigrants with children born abroad. English, Mathematics and Civic, Social and Political Education are also part of the Junior Certificate exam, as well as five to eight more optional subjects. Typically, a student of a secondary school in Ireland will take between nine and 13 subjects as part of their Junior Certificate exam from subject groups such as: Practical, Science, Artistic, Humanities, Social and Business. A full list of the Junior Cycle Subjects is available here. However, it is important to note that the subjects offered for the Junior Certificate exam differ from school to school, with some schools not being in a position to offer every subject.
Finally, The Junior Certificate School Programme (JCSP) offers help to young people who are at risk of leaving school early and who may benefit from enhanced support with preparation for the Junior Certificate exam. Schools that offer this programme are provided with extra resources in order to help their teachers create a more inclusive group-based approach to the Junior Certificate School Programme.