The education and training system comprises:
- primary education;
- secondary education, divided into lower secondary education (EQF2) and upper secondary (EQF 3-4);
- further education and training (FET) non-tertiary education;
- tertiary education.
Primary education is compulsory from the age of 6 years, although the vast majority of pupils enrol between the ages of 4 and 5 years. It consists of an eight year cycle: junior infants, senior infants, and first to sixth classes. Most learners have completed primary education by the age of 12.
Secondary education usually lasts five to six years and is divided into lower secondary education (3 years) and upper secondary (2 years). Some pupils may also undertake the Transition Year Programme: a one-year programme that acts as a bridge between lower and upper secondary education.
Lower secondary education: the junior cycle is a generally oriented programme of approximately three years’ duration and leads to the Junior Certificate examination, which students usually take at the age of 15 or 16.
Upper secondary: the senior cycle (i.e. upper secondary education) takes two years and leads to the leaving certificate examination which students usually sit at the age of 17 or 18.
Further education and training in Ireland comprises post-secondary non-tertiary education, as well as second chance education/training. The sector is characterised by a high degree of diversity in terms of the type of programme, level and learner:
- further education and training programmes can be general, vocational or mixed;
- they lead to awards across several levels on the EQF (levels 1-5 on the European Qualifications Framework (EQF), or levels 1-6 on Ireland’s National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ));
- target groups include young people who have recently completed upper secondary education, adult learners, early school leavers, the employed, the unemployed, asylum seekers, learners with special needs;
- post leaving certificate (PLC) programmes are aimed primarily at those completing upper secondary education, but are also open to older learners; programmes are often general in nature, but also include VET programmes such as motor technology;
- second chance learning opportunities within the further education and training sector.
Over a half of those who complete upper secondary school transfer directly to third level education on completing upper secondary education (
). Students can opt for higher education in a university, institute of technology or college of education (EQF levels 5-6, ISCED levels 544-554, 665). There are also a small number of private, independent providers of tertiary (or third) level education (mostly business and related disciplines).
Undergraduate higher education courses are of various durations, ranging from two years for a higher certificate (NFQ 6; EQF 5, ISCED 665) to three/four years for an honours bachelor degree (NFQ 8; EQF 6; ISCED 666). Some programmes, such as medicine or architecture, require up to five years. Postgraduate programmes range from one year (e.g. taught masters (NFQ 9; EQF 7; ISCED 667)) to three years or more for doctoral programmes (NFQ 10; EQF 8; ISCED 864).
VET is provided primarily within the further education and training sector (comprising post-secondary non-tertiary and second chance education). However, since 2016, the apprenticeship system has been expanded and includes new programmes which are delivered not only within the further education and training sector, but also in tertiary level institutions. Graduates, however, have yet to emerge from these programmes.
Like the apprenticeship system, the traineeship system has undergone substantial change in recent years in Ireland. Traineeships, unlike apprenticeships, are not regulated by law (there is no occupation profile); they tend to be developed in response to local employers’ needs, and curriculum content may vary according to local demand. Traineeships must have a work-based learning component of at least 30%.
Most of the development of the traineeship system has been the result of recognising the need to develop the skills of the employed, as outlined in the national skills strategy. Consequently, while most traineeships programmes had previously been available only to the unemployed, they have, since 2017, also been open to school leavers and the employed. There are no age restrictions for trainees, and they are free of charge to participants. Some unemployed trainees may also receive a training allowance.
Specific skills training courses allow people who have lost their job to learn new job-related skills. The courses on offer vary from year to year with different levels of certification. The training content and occupational standards are based on the consultation process involving employers. Certification achieved on course completion ranges from levels 3-5 on the national framework of qualifications (or levels 2-4 on the EQF). The courses differ from traineeships in that they tend to be shorter (four to five months), with a shorter on-the-job phase; in addition, the employer does not play a role in recruitment.
Post leaving certificate courses are aimed at learners who have completed the leaving certificate examination at the end of upper secondary education. They are full-time courses which last between one and two years. These courses provide integrated general education, vocational training and work experience for young people; however, post leaving certificate courses are also an option for mature learners (in 2015, 47% of those enrolled on post leaving certificate programmes in 2015 were aged 21 or over). They provide, therefore, important lifelong learning opportunities for adult learners.
While some post leaving certificate courses are vocational in nature (e.g. training in beauty therapy, healthcare, security studies), others are general (e.g. general studies, art, design, etc.). Most post leaving certificate courses have a work experience component, although there is no prescribed minimum duration for most courses.
Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme (VTOS) courses consist of a range of full-time courses (EQF 2-5, ISCED 353) designed to meet the education and training needs of unemployed people aged 21 or over. It is offered by the 16 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) throughout the country. Participation in vocational training opportunities scheme courses is in two modes as follows:
- as a ‘core’ vocational training opportunities scheme; students participate in a group of up to twenty other vocational training opportunities scheme students in a vocational training opportunities scheme centre or adult education centre;
- as a ‘dispersed’ vocational training opportunities scheme; students participate in a group of students, some of whom may be vocational training opportunities scheme students and some of whom will be studying through other schemes/programmes (e.g. post leaving certificate course).
Vocational training opportunities scheme programmes offer a wide choice of subjects and learning activities. Certification is available at a range of levels.
Traditionally, programmes at tertiary level are not officially designated as being VET or General, although many programmes at higher education level are designed to qualify learners for work in specific occupations (e.g. teacher, architect, doctor, engineer). In this regard, tertiary education in Ireland does lead to VET related qualifications. However, in 2016, for the first time in Ireland, an apprenticeship programme became available at higher education level (insurance studies). Learners must hold an upper secondary education qualification and be in employment. Nonetheless, apprenticeship training at tertiary level is currently not a typical feature of the sector.