Irish school system explained.

Below is an explanation / drill-down of how the Irish school system is structured.

Do Irish schools have grades?

No. In America, the terms “kindergarten” and “grades” are often used. However, in Ireland, we refer to them as “classes” and “years”. Also, we do not have “Elementary School”, “Middle School” or “High School”. Instead, our education system is split up into “Primary School” and “Secondary School.” Primary School is for children between the ages of 4 and 13, whereas Secondary School is for students that are 12 years old or older.


“Playschool” is not a part of the official school system. Instead, it is an optional “pre-school” that prepares children for life in Primary School. During playschool, children will partake in play time, arts and crafts and singalongs. Throughout the day, they will be given meals, as well as rest / nap time. Typically-speaking, Irish children will attend playschool between the ages of 3 and 4.

Primary School

Primary School is the first school that Irish children will attend. Children will usually enter the Irish education system between the ages of four and six.

Legally, a child in Ireland must start school by the age of six.

The different “grades” are structured like so:

Junior Infants

This is the first “grade” that an Irish child will enter. During Junior Infants, children will learn the alphabet, basic Mathematics and partake in arts and crafts. Physical Education (PE) may also be a part of the curriculum. At this stage, students are beginning to learn some basic numeracy and literacy skills. They are also learning how to adapt to a new life, in which they must cope without their parents and interact with other children.

Senior Infants

“Senior Infants” is the second “grade” that a student will enter and it is mostly just a continuation of “Junior Infants.” It is important to note that both “Junior Infants” and “Senior Infants” are grouped together as “Level 1” of Primary School education.

1st-6th class.

After Senior Infants has drawn to a close, the remaining Primary School “grades” will be referred to as “classes”. This means that Primary School is ordered like so:

  • Junior Infants
  • Senior Infants
  • 1st Class
  • 2nd Class
  • 3rd Class
  • 4th Class
  • 5th Class
  • 6th Class

During the school year, students will take part in Christmas and Summer exams, which will be prepared and graded by the teacher.

Primary School students do not have a timetable. i.e. They are assigned to a particular teacher, who will teach them multiple subjects. This means that Primary School students will usually remain in the same classroom throughout the course of the school year.

Subjects in Primary School include English, Mathematics, Irish, Geography, Physical Education, Arts and Crafts, Science and History. Religion will be taught in religious-orientated schools (of which there are many).

The summer break for Primary Schools in Ireland is typically two months long, spanning July and August.

6th class is the last year of Primary School. After 6th class has been completed, the student will transition into Secondary School. More often than not, this involves moving to a new school.

Secondary School

Secondary School (sometimes referred to as “second level education”) begins after the student has finished 6th class.

Although secondary school will sometimes hold “entrance exams” for new students, these exams do not prevent the student from entering second level education. In reality, these exams are used for assessment and statistical purposes only.

Secondary School students get three months off during the summer months (between the start of June and the end of August).

Typically speaking, the school day will be somewhere between 8.30am and 4.30pm. For example, when I was in Secondary School, we started at 9am and finished at 4pm. On a Friday, we finished at 3.15pm.

As soon as a student enters second level education, he or she will have to adapt to a new life of timetables, lockers and multiple teachers teaching multiple subjects. Each subject is typically 40-45 minutes long.

In Secondary School, the term “year” is used instead of “class”. i.e. There is no such thing as 7th class. Instead, it will be ordered like so:

  • 1st Year
  • 2nd Year
  • 3rd Year
  • 4th Year / Transition Year
  • 5th Year
  • 6th Year

Junior Cycle

The first three years of Secondary School are considered to be apart of the “Junior Cycle”. Throughout 1st, 2nd and 3rd year, students will study for a state examination called “The Junior Certificate.”

Although this is a state examination, it does not hold much importance (colleges, universities and employers will not ask about the results of your Junior Certificate). The purpose of the Junior Cert is to prepare students for the Leaving Certificate, which is held at the end of 6th Year.

Note that the Junior Certificate is not a single examination. Instead, its consists of multiple examinations for multiple subjects, all of which will take place over the course of 3-4 weeks.

Transition Year

4th Year is an optional year that is commonly referred to as “Transition Year” or “TY”. It does not have any bearing on 5th or 6th year, or the Leaving Certificate in general. Transition Year is a year for “maturity and personal development”.

If a student does not do Transition Year, they will have to skip 4th year and go straight into 5th year. i.e. A student cannot refuse to do Transition Year and then take the year off school.

It is worth noting that some secondary schools have made Transition Year compulsory. However, this is the school’s own policy. It is not the policy of the Department of Education.

5th and 6th Year

During 5th and 6th Year, students will study for an important state-held examination called the Leaving Certificate. Like the Junior Cert, this examination consists of multiple examinations for multiple subjects, all of which will take place over the course of 3-4 weeks.

The results of these examinations are “counted up” and summed up into a singular numerical figure, called “points”. The amount of points that you get in the Leaving Certificate will determine what university courses you will be able to take.

Most university courses will have a minimum points requirement.

Example: Architecture in UCD required 487 points in 2018. Medicine required 731 points.

University courses may also require that you received a minimum grade in a specific subject. i.e. A physics-related course may require that you achieve at least a B3 in Honors Physics.

School uniforms.

In general, most schools in Ireland require their students to wear school uniforms. This is a hotly-contested topic of debate.

People who are against school uniforms say that they are costly and prevent students from expressing themselves. On average, Irish parents spend €229 per-child on uniforms and shoes. In a lot of cases, schools will require that their uniforms are purchased from a specific shop. This decreases competition and pushes the price up.

Others say that uniforms reduce competition between students to wear “branded” clothes and logos and that they force “modesty”.


The school system is ordered like so:

  • Junior Infants
  • Senior Infants
  • 1st Class
  • 2nd Class
  • 3rd Class
  • 4th Class
  • 5th Class
  • 6th Class
  • 1st Year: The student has now entered second level education.
  • 2nd Year
  • 3rd Year: Junior Certificate.
  • 4th Year: Optional in most schools.
  • 5th Year
  • 6th Year: Leaving Certificate.

This means that an Irish student could spend between 13-14 years in school. It is worth noting that school attendance is only compulsory up until the age of 16, which is the age that students can decide to leave school. A student can also leave school after completing 3rd year. For example, a 15 year old can leave school after they sit their Junior Certificate exam.

This article was posted in Ireland.