Schooling in Ireland, for Mobility Managers & Relocating Families (Webinar Highlights)
Updated: Feb 26
On February 8th, 2023, Bennett International hosted an informative live conversation between two seasoned international education consultants, presented to an audience of mobility managers and families with school-aged children preparing for a relocation to Ireland. We called the discussion "Hotspot Spotlight: Schooling In Ireland."
Leticia G. de la Rasilla and Sarah Teasdale, who are both parents, former teachers, and highly regarded international education consultants and school placement specialists, covered several topics regarding schooling in Ireland today, including:
1. An Overview of the Irish Curriculum
2. Irish Language Learning Requirements
3. Applying to Public, Private, and International Schools
4. Students with Special Education Needs
5. Key Takeaways for Mobility Managers and Parents
Below are highlight clips from the conversation, along with a text transcript (lightly edited for reading clarity)! A recording of this webinar in its entirety is also available here.
1. An Overview of the Irish Curriculum
Leticia: So, let's start with the Irish curriculum and education system. What is it that differs from other well-known curricula, such as the British or American curriculum?
Sarah: We’re very lucky in Ireland, because the school curriculum is very well respected and known to be robust; there have not been that many changes to it over the years, save a sort of revamp around 2005. It’s quite traditional, and quite different from many of the curricula that we might be used to finding if we're coming from the US, Canada, or Europe, where you might find a more inquiry-based curriculum, for example. The Irish curriculum still relies at the secondary school level quite a bit on “the book.” So, you know, in the old days where the textbook was all-important in some countries, we’ve somewhat stuck to that route with our learning resources, so, quite a traditional system.
Most education is state funded in Ireland, generally, though there are some other aspects; Catholic schools may have some Catholic funding, and there are a few fee-paying schools in a number of private and secondary schools, for example. There are two main phases of education (so, there's no set formal curriculum before children start school, like you might find in the UK and elsewhere), which are primary education and secondary education.
School starting age is actually quite loose. Children are supposed to be in school by the time they're 6 years old. The Irish tend to start children in the local communities around the age of 5, but you can start your child when they're around 4 ½ years old. So typically, they should be 4 years old by the April before they start school – so, they do start a little bit older than perhaps they would in the UK. Children and then move on to secondary school when they are 12, going on 13. That can be a little bit loose as well, and because some may have started primary school a little earlier or later, you do end up with a slightly mixed age in the groups.
Secondary education takes them into the Junior Cycle and the Senior Cycle. In the Junior Cycle, they have the two-year examination curriculum, where they end up taking their Junior Certificate (or “Cert”) at 15, and the Senior Cycle will put them through the Leaving Cert, which is their stepping-stone towards university. Really and truly, all schools across the Republic of Ireland will teach this Irish National curriculum – there’s not much change from that, even in schools that might be more community-led or non-denominational that have more license to do things in a slightly different way. The curriculum is still very much the same across all Irish schools.
You're probably going to ask me about what happens with...
2. Irish Language Learning Requirements
Sarah: ... of course, the one big thing that's different about going to school in Ireland is that you will be learning Irish! So, children as young as 4, when they come in, will be taking Irish lessons - usually daily.
Leticia: I’m concerned about the two age groups. You mentioned that children start schooling loosely by the age of 6, but what happens with younger children? We get many families who’ve arrived in Ireland with much younger children - what is it like for them? I've heard about "the crash"... are there schools or institutions, or is it more like a daycare facility system? Do they have an educational component and a structure? What does it look like before the age of 6?
Sarah: There is no formal or legal curriculum requirement for children under school starting age. That can be one thing that shocks people coming to Ireland from elsewhere. Quite often, we had our incoming children previously in very well-structured kindergartens, Montessori schools, and nurseries in the UK and places where they might be studying foundation-stage curriculum, learning to read and write. The Irish offering for young children is very much still geared towards play. You will find the occasional Montessori school and more formal nurseries, but largely, they are termed “crashes,” and this is something really centered more around childcare.
I would say that in most cases, what families are getting is good, and very well looked-after children, but you can't necessarily expect the educational offering that they may have been receiving elsewhere. That can be something that hits people quite hard, along with the lack of availability for places for children of that age.
Leticia: Interesting. And, what about for older students? You mentioned they can get their Leaving Cert by the age of 15. So, what happens when a family moves with a child aged 15 or 16 from Ireland, for example, to the UK and into the British curriculum? It's important to know if they're in their 1st or 2nd year of GCSE, or their 1st or 2nd year of A-Levels. Is there any grade level where it's very difficult to accept a student? This brings me to another question as well - what about the Irish language knowledge? Will a student of that age be required to take Irish Language as a subject? So, two questions in one.
Sarah: Yes, thank you, Leticia. So, it's always difficult, isn't it, moving older children? You know, we've done this a lot, and it is hard, because they're either leaving the first part of an exam system expecting something that they don't get in another curriculum, or they're entering a new exam system they knew nothing about - it can become quite a shock, where they're suddenly studying for a big public exam at the age of 14.
So, it's a little easier, in my view, than working in the UK, because there is a little bit of wiggle room. Children study for the Junior Cert between the ages of 14 and 15, and then they have a year, which they call “Transition Year,” before they then go on to start studying for the Leaving Cert, which is another two years. So, the Transition Year sandwiched in the middle sometimes give a little bit of wriggle room for schools to say, “well, you're arriving into the second year of our examination course, but let's put you in Transition Year,” or, “you're arriving for the first year of the Leaving Cert, but let's put you here for now, you've got a term to go and then we can move on to the next stage.” So, it is complicated - we know it is, and it's hard for older children. But, you know, there is a little bit of space there, and with a good Head Teacher and Head of Year, sometimes a discussion with the parents can sort things out quite easily.
Regarding your second question about [Irish language class] exemption - for families arriving from all over the world whose children have not studied Irish for three years, they are exempt, or can be exempt, if they're going into secondary school. So, [they would not be exempt] if they join primary School, unless there's some specific reason, for example, maybe a child has an extra need for language support – otherwise, children coming into primary level will usually have to [study the Irish language]. Generally, children joining secondary school can apply for an Exemption Certificate, and maybe they can focus on another language while they're in secondary school.
3. Applying to Public, Private, and International Schools
Leticia: What about public schools in Ireland? What is the process to enter a public school, and what is the current situation of the property market in Ireland?
Sarah: This is a really interesting question, and a very good one for our relocation world to do understand, because it's all a bit “chicken and egg”...
The local families will apply to start primary school, perhaps in the January before the children would start; they're on the ground, they're living in a property, they've been in the community. [They’d apply for] secondary school the October before [the children would start] - there's a short window to apply on time. So, what happens if you come in-between is, firstly, you’re arriving when your child is midway through their year or their academic career. Then, [school placement] is really centered around having a property (i.e. a proof of address), then looking for a school space, and then getting your place. So, that's quite tough, especially when there are criteria around first having a property.
At the moment, one of the problems is that we can look at an area - for example, if families are interested in moving to the Southside or Dalkey areas, we can look at the schools and availability there around the time children are arriving, but ultimately, schools are going to want to see a proof of address before they'll make that final offer. And, what's happening at the moment is that the home-search teams are unable to find either a suitable or affordable property in the areas where we have seen there are schools based.
So, how do we work with that? What we're trying to do is to encourage parents to understand that there are good schools (with our help) in various surrounding areas around their commute to work, there is affordable housing, etc., and to focus on their property-find; because there's a shortage, it's better to try and lock down a property first. Once you have a property, schools are far more amenable to talking about bringing your children in and finding school places for them. So far (touch wood!), we haven't had too much difficulty doing it that way, but that's often quite a difficult process for parents to take on board, because they’re thinking about moving to an area and finding property where the school is, the children are the most important [factor in a family’s move], and we're telling people to try and do it the other way around.
Leticia: What about the private schools? Because if it's easier, then maybe families would prefer just to go the private school route.
Sarah: In terms of private schools, there are not many for the primary level - most of the private schools in Ireland tend to be for secondary level, and that's when most of the locals will be thinking about sending their children to private school, which might be a school that their parents or grandparents went to, etc. And so, if you're applying to a private school outside of the normal entry time (when the children are 11 – 12 years old), it can be very difficult to find a space after that. So, you would be picking up on a very lucky occasional place, and some of these places are very sought-after.
So, you’re right in that you don't need to have a property in order to apply to a private school, so something that we can look at before families leave and have moved to Ireland, but it can still be tough finding spaces.
Leticia: So, the other option is international schools. Are there any international schools in Ireland? What does that look like?
Sarah: We were talking the other day, weren’t we, about this - “what's the definition of an international school?” And, in my mind, it's a school offering an internationally recognized curriculum to a community of multi-denominational children who’ve traveled to Ireland and are joining from all over the world to attend, for example, not a French school, not a German school. We do have French schools, German schools, and similar possibilities, but as for true international schools offering internationally recognized curricula such as the International Baccalaureate (IB), there are not many of those, and we're really only talking about Dublin. There was a school offering the IB Diploma in Limerick, and a few schools offering the IB Diploma only (in place of the Leaving Cert for students aged 16 - 18), but in terms of international curricula, schools who have primary years and middle years programs and also the IB Diploma, there’s actually only one school that goes all the way through, and that's in Dublin. There is also a primary school there offering the IB Diploma. So, those two, I would say, are true international schools. There are a few other schools that are thought of as “international,” but they are very much Irish-curriculum schools, perhaps offering the opportunity to take the IB Diploma at 16, but because they are local private schools, once again, you've got that competition finding a place.
With the international schools offering IB curriculum all the way through, there's a rolling admission, so you've got that opportunity, possibly, to join them at any point in time, subject to successful admission. There are a couple of schools like that with more opportunity to find places, but the downside is that we know is that they tend to be the more expensive schools.
Leticia: Yes, absolutely - when a school is very international, there's much more turnover, so they are more chances to be able to enter at any stage.
4. Students with Special Education Needs
Leticia: So, what happens if a family is moving with a child who has a special education needs? What would be the process there to apply to a school that can offer the support the child requires?
Sarah: Yes, thank you for asking this. It's great, because Ireland is generally very inclusive for children who have a special need of any kind. Most families would simply be looking to apply to a mainstream school and going through the same process, just as we’ve described - finding a property, finding a space, and then getting support within that mainstream school.
There are two other ways that you can go. If you have a child that, for example, had to come from a specialist school and needed specific support because they had very specific learning needs that couldn't be support in the mainstream schools, you would be looking at a special school in Ireland. There's a real lack of spaces in those at the moment, unfortunately. If we have a family coming in with special educational needs children, a good early head start would be good for us. There's a lot of managing expectations and working with the local special educational needs officers in the areas of whatever city they're going to, and that kind of placement can take a long time. We would also ask that children come with their records, medical notes, and anything that's going to be helpful for the applications - educational psychologists reports, etc., all of that is useful, and not to be packed in that shipping container, which can be a disaster! So, special needs placement in specialist schools like this can take a lot of time. There are people in the community who can help us with this too, once we know where the family is moving.
The third area is looking at a mainstream school that might have a “special class attached” rule. This would involve finding a school in a specific area that already has a setup for autism, or Asperger's, or any other aspect of special educational needs. So, part of their learning would be in this special class, and part of their time would be spent inclusively within the rest of the students.
5. Key Takeaways
Leticia: I know it's just the tip of the iceberg, and there's so much more to this - I want to ask, what advice would you give the audience today as a takeaway?
Sarah: Well, as a takeaway, I would say, if you are moving to Ireland yourself with school-aged children, engage with an education consultant, if you can, quite quickly. If you think you've got any need to have the extra support, because of what we've just been talking about - the lack of school places, issues with special needs students, etc., it's a really good idea to have a consultant working with you that you can engage quickly.
If you are a mobility manager about to work with families moving to Ireland in the future - again, think about what we discussed, and have early conversations with those families. Obviously, as we've said, we can't find school places for families before they’ve arrived here; that’s not something we can do. But, I think it helps enormously to start talking about the process, helping with their understanding, reassuring them about the way that it's going to work and the way that it can work.
My other piece of advice is regarding childcare. Obviously, as I said, there is a big problem at the moment with childcare placement. If you are moving to Ireland, or if you’re a mobility manager about to move somebody who might need childcare because they've got to start work immediately upon arrival - this is something you can start working on before the actual move, and we would help getting on waitlists and things like that. Even though families are not able to go and view facilities, just getting a weight lifted and having early conversations regarding childcare is very important.
Leticia: I wanted to ask you one more thing, Sarah. What have you found most rewarding from all these years working with different families?
Sarah: Thank you for throwing that in! You know… it's a real privilege for me to work with parents. I've been there myself and I know how it feels. I think the most rewarding thing is when I’ve had those first conversations with relocating families, who are incredibly stressed and worried, everything is a problem, and - we all do this - are putting their children’s welfare well before themselves. And, you know, the concerns in my background sometimes are that their whole move could hinge on how their school placement goes - how the families settles, how their job goes, how everything goes. So, I find it really rewarding when you look back over the years, and I've done this for a long time now, when you know that families are saying to you at the end that the most problematic aspect of the move for them was turned into a really positive relocation because of the schooling and because of our support. That always makes me really happy, and just tells me that we've done our job as education consultants.
Leticia: I think that's a beautiful ending.
Based in Madrid, Spain, Leticia G. de la Rasilla is Bennett's Client Services Representative and a Global Team Lead for the EMEA region. Leticia began working as an education consultant in 2007 in Mexico and has since moved from Latin America to Germany and back to Spain, where she is originally from. She has also lived in Ireland, France, and Belgium, and has taught at international schools in Mexico and Germany, and at a university in Spain. As one who has relocated multiple times with her four children, Leticia has experienced firsthand the challenges of identifying and accessing best-fit schools for her children in new locations and helping them through multiple transitions; her own experience of having to “figure it all out” has certainly made her empathetic to the mobile assignee experience and all the more passionate about supporting the families we serve.
Based in Brighton, England, Sarah Teasdale in one of Bennett’s Global Team Leads, supporting our UK-based consultants. Originally trained as a teacher in England, Sarah worked in both the state and independent sectors before traveling with her three daughters, teaching and working as an education consultant abroad in Ireland, Bahrain, Kenya, and the United Arab Emirates. Before joining Bennett, Sarah worked with a leading relocation company to set up their in-house education consultancy. In addition to gaining an overall experience of the relocation industry, Sarah developed a deep appreciation of the importance of helping the client families she worked with to understand the choices available to them as they placed their children in a new schooling environment.