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EACEA National Policies Platform


6. Education and Training

6.1 General context

Last update: 28 March 2024
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  1. Main trends in young people's participation in education and training
  2. Organisation of the education and training system
  3. Main concepts

Main trends in young people's participation in education and training 

Increasing enrollment rates

Irelands population has grown in recent years. This increase has caused a surge in the number of students enrolled in post-primary schools. 

According to a Statistical Bulletin published by the Department of Education, 406,457 pupils were enrolments in post-primary schools at September 2022 an increase of 14,759 pupils (3.8%) compared with September 2021. 

These increasing enrolment rates intensify the existing challenge of supplying enough teachers for the national education system. The Department of Education's Statement of Strategy 2023-2025 includes the goal of "Build upon ongoing actions to support the supply of teachers and other members of the education workforce". 

The Department of Education published a technical report Developing a Teacher Demand and Supply Model for Ireland 2020-2036. This report addresses the many challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and acknowledges the innovative responses and flexibility required from everyone in the education sector. This is a working document that will be updated to reflect changes to the teacher demand and supply model for post-primary teachers.


Early School Leavers

Eurostat data on Early Leavers from Education and Training by sex and labour status (2020) showed, Ireland’s number of 18- to 24-year-olds, who leave further education and training with at most a lower secondary education, fell to 5% in 2017, remaining relatively stable in 2018 at 5%, in 2019 was 5.1% and dropped to 5% in 2020.

As noted in the National Reform Programme, this is one of the lowest rates in the EU and substantially below Ireland’s Europe 2020 target of 8%. Nevertheless, the National Reform Programme also recognises that ‘Ireland still faces challenges in the area of early school leaving and young people not engaged in employment, education or training (NEETs) in disadvantaged areas’ and within certain groups, including Irish Travellers.

Travellers are formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation. The Equal Status Act 2000 defines the ‘Traveller community’ as ‘the community of people who are commonly called Travellers and who are identified (both by themselves and others) as people with a shared history, culture and traditions including, historically, a nomadic way of life on the island of Ireland’ [Equal Status Act, 2000, Section 2 (1)]. Early school leaving is much more common amongst the Traveller community in Ireland. In the last Census 2016 (Profile 8 Irish Travellers, Ethnicity and Religion)

  • 13.3% of Traveller females were educated to upper secondary or above compared with 69.1% of the general population
  • 57.2% of Traveller men were educated to at most primary level compared with 13.6% of the general population. 

The unemployment rate among Irish Travellers is substantially higher than amongst the general population. 80.2% of Irish Travellers were unemployed (Profile 8 Irish Travellers, Ethnicity and Religion) compared to 12.9% of the general population (Profile 11 Employment, Occupations and Industry). 


Social Inclusion

Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools

A priority of Ireland’s previous youth policy framework, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: The National Policy Framework for Children and Young People, 2014-2020 (DCEDIY) is to ‘Work together to protect young people at risk.’ The Department of Education’s Social Inclusion Unit develops and promotes a coordinated Department response to tackling educational disadvantage in second-level education.

One of the Unit’s key methods is the DEIS Plan 2017 Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools. It provides a standardized system to identify levels of disadvantage and an integrated programme of Supports to DEIS Schools. Of the 723 second-level schools in Ireland, 199 are included in the DEIS School List 2021-2022.

The Evaluation of DEIS at Post-Primary Level: Closing the Achievement and Attainment Gap was published in 2018 by Weir and Kavanagh and its aim was to monitor the implementation of DEIS

and assess its impact on students, families, schools, and communities at primary and post-primary levels. Some findings from this evaluation included:

  • There are significant positive trends in retention rates for both state examinations, the Junior Certificate Examination and the Leaving Certificate Examination.
  • A selection of subjects in the Leaving Certificate Examination may be taken at higher, ordinary or foundation level. The proportion of students, in DEIS schools, sitting the English and mathematics exams decreased at foundation level and increased at higher level exams.

The significant improvement in trends like this seems to be greater for DEIS schools than non-DEIS schools. 


National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy 

The National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 (Department of Justice and Equality, 2017) was the first Irish inclusion strategy specifically addressing Traveller and Roma inclusion. While it expired in 2022, it is currently the latest version. It takes a whole of Government approach to improving the lives of Travellers and Roma in Ireland. It aims to improve public service engagement with Traveller and Roma communities. It proposes: 

  • Traveller and Roma women should be supported in key areas including education, employment, and economic development.
  • Improved educational access, participation and outcomes for Travellers and Roma. 
  • SOLAS [the national Further Education and Training (FET) Authority] and the Education and Training Boards consider the needs of disadvantaged groups, including Travellers and Roma, when planning FET provision. 
  • Addressing the high rate of early school-leaving in the Traveller and Roma communities, by strengthening the cooperation between formal education and non-formal learning sectors. 



The National Strategy for Higher Education for 2030 (DES, 2011) recognises an upward trend of Irish students studying abroad. The main route for Irish third level students to study abroad is though the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme.

The Erasmus+ Annual Report Factsheet for Ireland from 2019 outlined that there were a total of 3972 outgoing students and trainees during the period of 2018 to 2019. This increasing internationalisation of higher education is also visible in the rates of incoming Erasmus+ students. The Erasmus+ Annual Factsheet reports 8,463 incoming higher education students and trainees in 2018/19, an increase of over 1,246 students from the period of 2015/2016.


Organisation of the education and training system

Full-time education is compulsory from 6 to 16 years, or until the completion of 3 years of second-level education. Both state-funded and private education is available at all levels in Ireland. 

  Typical Age of Attendance   Awarded level on National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ)  Awarded level on European Qualifications Framework (EQF)  Awarded level on International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 
Lower Second Level / Post-Primary Education  12-15 
Upper Second Level / Post-Primary Education  15-18 
Further Education and Training  16 onwards   1-6   1-5  1-4 
Higher Education  16 onwards  7-10   5-8  5-8 
Adult Education  16 onwards  1-4  1-3  1-2 


A diagram describing the Irish education system can be found on page (i) of A Brief Description of the Irish System (Department of Education and Science, 2004).

Post-Primary Education may take place via secondary schools; vocational schools; community and comprehensive schools; or special schools. The majority of post-primary students study in secondary schools. Secondary schools are owned and managed privately. There are three secondary school models:

  • Community Colleges - established by the local Education and Training Board (ETB) which is also the sole patron of the school. Community Colleges are funded by the Department of Education through the ETBs and deliver the post-primary curriculum determined by the Minister for Education supported by syllabuses, guidelines for teachers, circulars to schools and prescribed material for the examinations.
  • Community Schools - established by one or more private or religious patrons coming together with an ETB patron or as the result of the amalgamation of voluntary secondary and ETB schools. Community Schools are funded by the Department of Education and deliver the post-primary curriculum determined by the Minister for Education supported by syllabuses, guidelines for teachers, circulars to schools and prescribed material for the examinations.
  • Voluntary Secondary Schools - privately owned and managed post-primary schools, usually under the patronage of an individual body such as a religious community, a charitable trust or a private charitable company. Voluntary Secondary Schools are funded by the Department of Education and deliver the post-primary curriculum determined by the Minister for Education supported by syllabuses, guidelines for teachers, circulars to schools and prescribed material for the examinations.

Post-primary education is divided into two cycles. A 3-year Junior Cycle ends with the State Examination known as the Junior Certificate Examination. This leads onto a Senior Cycle of 2 or 3 years (depending on whether an optional Transition Year is taken at the start of the Senior Cycle). A second state examination is typically taken following the completion of the Senior Cycle. This exam may take the form of the Leaving Certificate (Established), the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme or the Leaving Certificate Applied. Students can progress into further education and training (FET) or higher education.

Full-time FET includes Post Leaving Certificate Courses, Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme and Youthreach. Part-time FET includes Back To Education Initiative, Community Education, and Adult Education.

Apprenticeships can take place within FET or higher education, leading to an award at level 5-10 NFQ/4-8 EQF. They are 2-4 years duration, with a minimum of 50% on-the-job learning. Apprentices are employed under a formal contract and paid by the employer for the duration of the apprenticeship.

The Government aims to increase the apprenticeship scheme over the coming five years as outlined in the Action Plan for Apprenticeships (2021-2025). An ambitious target of 10,000 new apprentice registrations per year by 2025 underlines the Governments commitment to reforming the position of apprenticeships in the wider education and training sector, especially post Covid-19.

According to Review of Pathways to Participation in Apprenticeship (Generation Apprenticeship, 2018) there were 14,953 apprentices in October 2018, and of these, 85% were males under 25 years old. For further details on apprenticeships see Youth Wiki Chapter 3.5.

Higher Education, also known as Third Level, is primarily provided by Universities, Colleges of Education, and Institutes of Technology. The Education Indicators 2020 shows that the total number of pupils taking the Leaving Certificate programme (across both 5th and 6th year) has increased from just under 79,000 in 2015 to over 86,000 in 2019.

Adult Education may be formal or non-formal, and often overlaps with community education. Formal adult education is often provided through Education and Training Boards or non-governmental organisations.


Main concepts

Early School Leaving

Multiple definitions of early school leaving are used in Ireland. 

  • The legal definition is ‘non-participation in school before reaching the age of 16 years or before completing 3 years post-primary education, whichever is later’. 
  • The Central Statistics Office’s Educational Attainment Thematic Report defines ‘early school leavers as persons aged 18 to 24 whose highest level of education attained is lower secondary or below and have not received education since.’ 
  • A commonly used interpretation is ‘those who leave the education system without a minimum of 5 passes in the Leaving Certificate or equivalent qualification’. 

Inclusive Education 

Under the Education for Persons With Special Educational Needs Act 2004 [No. 30.2] ‘inclusive education’ is educating children ‘with special educational needs […] in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs’ unless it would go against the child’s best interests or negatively affect the other children’s education. 

Inclusive education is commonly known as special education. The same Act [No. 30.1] defines ‘Special educational needs’ as ‘a restriction in the capacity of the person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability or any other condition which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition…’. 


Youth Work 

‘Youth work’ is defined by the Youth Work Act, 2001 as 

a planned programme of education designed for the purpose of aiding and enhancing the personal and social development of young persons through their voluntary participation, and which is 

(a) complementary to their formal, academic or vocational education and training; and

(b) provided primarily by voluntary youth work organisations.