Modern Ireland: School Life
Part 1: Moving through the System
You did it! You’ve almost made it through the summer (and what a hot and humid one it was here in Connecticut,) and back to school here. Since the way the American school system works is embedded into your brains as something you just inherently know, it can be confusing when we’re faced with another country’s version. I’m sure you’ve experienced it: that dissonance that occurs when you’re reading or watching something about anyone school-aged in another country, including Ireland. Are they a freshman if they’re a first year? Wait, what do you mean, no? Let’s break down the Irish educational system for you:
First off, we have classes for our Tiny Jiggers: Preschool and Kindergarten—aka Junior Infants and Senior Infants. Much like America (or at least, most states,) school is compulsory for children in Ireland from the ages of 6-16, meaning their Junior Infants year (or two) is optional—though one year of Junior Infant education is free, paid for by the Irish government. While America currently has a scattered network of government-subsidized education before 6-years-old, President Biden is currently backing legislation that will secure more government funding for universal preschool programs across the country…I guess someone else has been checking out Ireland’s school system.
Primary school continues on past kindergarten in exactly the fashion we’re used to, except the Irish use the term class instead of grade for the younger students: i.e. 1st grade is 1st class, 2nd grade is 2nd class, etc.—all the way up through 6th class aka 6th grade. While 6th Grade is often part of what we call middle or secondary school, Ireland’s system is divided in two, rather than the three (elementary, middle, high) we use here: primary school (our grades Kindergarten through 6th) and secondary school (our 7th grade through 12th grade/senior year.)
Secondary school in Ireland is where things get a little more confusing: we start back at one. An American 7th grader would be a 1st year in an Irish secondary school, an 8th grader a 2nd year, and so on until you reach 6th year, aka the US senior year. That’s easy enough once you get the hang of it, but the way a secondary education is approached is decidedly different from most parts of the states. The last six years of school are divided into two cycles*: Junior Cycle, 1st year-3rd year and Senior Cycle, 5th-6th year, with 4th year (aka sophomore year) considered an optional, Transition Year. This year is supposed to be used to gain life experience, work experience, or travel, or just generally for “maturity and personal development.” You can skip this year and go straight into 5th year—but you’re not allowed to take a transition year later!
(*Fun fact: the term college in Ireland is generally considered to refer to secondary education, (rather than higher education, as in the states—though universities do have “colleges” within their institution that are schools within the school) often specifically the last two years or senior cycle.)
The linchpins of the Irish secondary school education are two major tests: the Junior Certification/Cert (taken after 3rd year aka freshman year) and the Senior Certification/Cert, also called the Leaving Cert.* The Junior Cert is a series of tests in all subjects over a course of 3-4 weeks and the results are mostly about determining where you are academically so you can start making plans for after school—no one will ask you about these results later on in life! The Leaving Cert is the more serious test (also 3-4 weeks of tests in 2-6 subjects at varying levels that award varying points,) and is akin to our SAT as yours “points” on the Leaving Cert determine what universities you can apply to, and even the subjects within that university you’re able to study (i.e. you’d need 480 points minimum to study medicine, but only 476 for literature at Trinity, one of Ireland’s best schools—don’t worry, we’ll cover universities later!)
(*It’s important to note that not everyone takes the Leaving Cert examinations, with alternatives including: Quality Qualification Ireland (QQI) courses as an alternate route to college (a bit like community college before transferring,) the Leaving Cert Applied (which is focused on work experience and group work,) or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Program that could lead straight into the work force or help place students in technical schools.)
Ireland is considered one of the best educated countries in the world, with 56% of 24-35 year olds receiving some for of higher education. (Is it the subsidized preschool year? Many people think it helps!) This is not only the highest percentage in Europe, but the fourth highest in the world (Ireland’s beat out only by Korea, Russia, and Canada) and significantly higher than the 44% average. But what’s it actually like to experience school in Ireland? Tune in next week to learn more!
This post is part of a series. Check out our last Modern Irish Culture post, full of children’s book recommendations, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
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