As a father of three (now grown) children, and a grandfather of five (not so grown) grandchildren, this same thought passed across my furrowed brow oh-so-many years ago. As an American, I was educated for the most part in the United States. Back in the mid-80s and having established residency here - and as my kids reached those formative school-going years - I too worried for their future. After all, to my Yankee ears even the Irish educational nomenclature sounded decidedly foreign.
Primary school, secondary school, transition year, third level...what did it all mean? And though I was (and still am) Catholic, the realisation that many schools were run by the Catholic Church gave me a moment's pause for reflection. While I attended Catholic schools for a few years in years gone by, did I want my kids taught by an Irish Catholic Church which was beset with many woes? I was so worried that for awhile I considered abandoning Ireland all together and moving back to the United States.
I shouldn't have let my over-active imagination cause me worry. And neither should you. Because over the years I've discovered that Ireland offers one of the best educations around. To all of her people.
Primary School: Most kids here start school at about the age of 4 or 5. The first two years, Junior and Senior Infants, are sort of like the U.S. version of Kindergarten and prepare children for the balance of their education. Following that, children attend 6 years of Primary School.
Most primary schools are State run. Many are still administered by the Catholic Church. Other than reading, writing, 'rithmatic, and other foundation courses, the syllabus includes Catholic religion classes and important (to Catholics anyway) milestones such as First Communion and Confirmation.
However, if you are not Catholic your child is not required to take religion classes so rest easy.
That said, as more and more immigrants wash up on these shores, schools incorporating other religions, or multi-disciplinary religious theologies, or none at all, are also being developed. Too, many parents choose to send their children to schools run by the Church of Ireland.
Unless attending a private school, Primary Schools in Ireland are free (that said, parents are often asked to make contributions to schools to help them cope with ongoing expenses or new investments).
For more information on Ireland's Primary Schools please click here.
Secondary School: the Secondary School cycle typically accommodates kids from the ages of 12 and up and is 5 or 6 years long. Many schools offer the option of a 'Transition Year' (following the 3rd year of secondary school) which is a sort of practical year enabling students to explore varied areas of interest outside of the typical curriculum. Most kids love Transition Year (though some profess to hate it.)
Once again, many Secondary Schools are State owned and run by the Church. However, others are private and run by other religions and organisations. Some parents also send their children to Boarding Schools. Many of these tend to be both prestigious and expensive. My kids all attended public Secondary Schools. They're free and offer a great education.
Note that some Secondary Schools are open only to boys. Some only to girls. While others are mixed. So take your pick, depending on what is on offer in your area.
Critical Irish Secondary School Exams: now here's where it gets very different from the United States. For many Americans, going to High School is a leap toward a college education. Entrance to the college or university of our choice is often based on a combination of results including High School GPA, standardised testing like the ACT and SAT, and often the quality of our application.
Here it differs completely.
Kids in Secondary School sit two major examinations. The first is the Junior Certificate. This tough examination usually takes place during a pupil's 3rd year of Secondary School. It is a multi-day series of tests across anywhere between 9 and 13 subjects.
The Junior Cert is a comprehensive examination which tests the skills and learning kids have received during their first 3 years of Secondary School. But does the Junior Cert have anything to do with College entrance? Not on your life. Instead, kids sit yet another exam. A more important exam. The nightmare of all exams:
The Leaving Cert: here's where the tough get going. The Leaving Cert is taken at the end of the last year of Secondary School. Kids spend almost a year preparing for it. Entire households go on prescription sedatives during this period because...
The Leaving Cert results, and only those results, determine not only where you can go to college or university, but if you can go at all. If your Leaving Cert results (the number of points you've obtained) aren't up to scratch, you simply can't compete in a country loaded with kids desiring a college and university education. Those with poor Leaving Cert results have options, of course. They can wait a year and take the Exam all over again. Or they can go on to a trade school or apply to foreign colleges and universities.
But make no bones about it: unlike the U.S., the single week of the Leaving Cert exam can determine the future for most students. And that is a daunting task, if I've ever heard of one.
Click here for more information on Irish Secondary Schools.
In my opinion, and for its size, Ireland has some of the best colleges and universities around. These so-called '3rd Level' institutions offer a breadth of education and learning required for today's highly competitive marketplace. From business degrees to Medicine; arts diplomas to computer science; practical degrees in construction to theology, Ireland has it all.
What's more, compared to equivalent U.S. university education, Ireland's institutions cost a pittance. If you are an Irish citizen or legally residing in Ireland, fees for most universities (including Trinity, UCD, DCU, University College Ireland, and many others) are €3,000 per year. I'll write it again:
€3,000 per year!
Okay, you'll have to add other costs to that: books and computers, living quarters and subsistence, but what a bargain! And trust me: the quality of education in this country does not reflect that bargain basement price. Instead, and depending on what you want to do and where you go, it's some of the best around. Just ask my son who recently graduated from NUI Maynooth with a PhD in the Irish language. He's more than a little pleased.
The Bottom Line
I was right to stay in Ireland if for nothing else than the quality of education which has substantially benefited my children. Okay, many Secondary Schools may not have the state-of-the-art infrastructure some U.S. High Schools have: most don't have an indoor swimming pool or indoor track or huge stage.
But they have something else: a high quality education delivered by teachers and teaching professionals who still consider their profession to be one of the best around. In return, most Irish respect those teachers, knowing that their diligence and skills provide a pathway to a future for their children.
If you're considering a move to Ireland I hope you take my advice: don't worry about your children's education. Ireland, I think, has some of the best in the world.
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