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Navigating the Irish Education System: Challenges and Solutions for Preschool and Primary Education


Ireland has a long history of providing quality education and has developed an educational system that is both challenging and supportive of the individual needs of its students. Education is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of six to sixteen or until students have completed three years of second-level education. If you are moving to Ireland and you have a child of school-going age, you will need information about the educational choices available to you and the procedures involved in getting your child enrolled. 

The Irish education system is characterized by three distinct levels: primary, post-primary school (otherwise known as secondary school), and tertiary education with each level offering different types of educational opportunities. Children usually start primary school at the age of 5 although they do not have to attend until the age of 6. Post-primary education has two stages, the junior cycle which is from age 12-15, and the senior cycle which is from age 16-18. For the purposes of this guide, we will be focusing on preschool and primary education. 


Pre-school in Ireland takes the form of privately run crèches, playschools, and Montessori schools.  

ECCE – Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme  

The Early Childhood Care and Education Scheme (ECCE) provides childhood care and education for children of pre-school age. Children can begin the ECCE when they are 2 years and 8 months of age and can continue it until they commence primary school. The government pays participating daycare centers a set amount per child to offer the ECCE service and in return, these centers offer a preschool service free of charge to all children within the acceptable age range. This scheme offers 3 free preschool hours per day during school term time for age-appropriate children – if the child attends for longer than this each day, there are charges associated with the extra hours. 

All daycare schools participating in the ECCE schemes must offer an appropriate pre-school education program that complies with the principles of Siolta – the national quality framework for early childhood education. 

National Childcare scheme  

The National Childcare Scheme provides financial support to help parents to meet the costs of private childcare. 

It includes two types of childcare subsidies for children aged over 6 months (24 weeks) and up to 15 years of age (children aged 15 do not qualify).  

  • Universal subsidy which is not means tested  
  • Income-assessed subsidy which is means tested  

You cannot get both schemes at the same time.

Primary Schools… 

The general aims of first-level education are:  

  • to enable the child to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual  
  • to enable the child to develop as a social being through living and co-operating with others and so contribute to the good of society  
  • to prepare the child for a continuum of learning. 

The curriculum is divided into the following key areas: Language, Mathematics, Social, environment and scientific education, arts education, physical education, and social, personal, and health education.  

The primary education sector is compromised of state-funded primary schools, private primary schools, and special schools. State-funded schools include religious schools, non-denominational schools, multi-denominational schools, and Gaelscoileanna (Irish-medium schools). 

Most primary schools are under the management of one denomination or another and the majority of these are Roman Catholic. There is, however, a growing choice of schools of other denominations and of multi-denominational schools. 

Schools that cater to a single religion may give priority to children of that religion, but they may also admit children with other religious beliefs or none. Children do not have to attend religion classes and you may choose to withdraw your child from such classes if you wish. 

In terms of enrolment procedures, you will need to provide a copy of your child’s passport or birth certificate, a PPS number, and proof of address. 

Childcare sector crises: long waiting lists & high prices...  

Childcare is one of the main issues the Irish government is currently facing. A boom in births during the pandemic has heightened demand and an increasing number of providers are closing down due to underfunding, leading to a growing shortage of preschool providers. There is also a mass exodus of staff from the sector, with difficulties in recruiting replacements. Creches say they can’t cope with the demand for places – in some cases, there are waiting lists of up to 12 months

What is the government doing to tackle this?  

Following a period of heavy consultation with all stakeholders, the government’s focus is to make the country’s childcare system less of a disaster. Within the Budget 2023 scheme, there is an additional €357.6m part of an overall €1bn funding package that orders creches to freeze their fees while processing increased pay for staff. 

How is Cornerstone combating this challenging situation?  

We do admit that the current childcare sector in Ireland is challenging however, at Cornerstone Ireland we have talented in-house educational consultants with years of experience and a deep understanding of the complexities. We can offer you the right support to navigate these often complex waters, both to find the right fit for your child and also to take advantage of the superb education on offer.  

At Cornerstone we have a comprehensive list of childcare providers and direct contacts that can expedite and simplify the process of finding a place for your child.  

Our top tips:  

  • Act fast – do not delay discussing preschool needs with us- as mentioned, demand is high so we should start to make arrangements as soon as possible  
  • Try and avoid city center schools – go to the outskirts: Demand for childcare is high, particularly in densely populated areas  
  • Focus on private small preschools instead of chain schools 

Let us make a difference!

If you’re embarking on an exciting relocation to Ireland and in search of top-notch preschool options for your little one, don’t hesitate to reach out to our friendly team for expert assistance. We’re here to make your transition smoother and help you find the perfect preschool for your child’s early education journey.

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