Primary school begins for most children at around 4/5, though not obligatory until age 6. The primary cycle is 8 years. Children leave around age 12/13, and head on to secondary school. There are no state examinations to sit before leaving primary school.
Secondary school is mandatory up to the age of 16. It is a 5/6 year cycle - students do a state examination, the Junior Certificate, in 3rd year, and then have the option of doing a 'transition' year. The idea is to allow the student to explore non-academic options before continuing on to the final two years, which are preparation for the state examination, the Leaving Certificate. Irish is taught throughout primary and secondary schools, however children from other countries are sometimes exempt from learning Irish.
You apply directly to the school of choice, and sometimes have to go on a waiting list.
For many years the Roman Catholic Church has run the schools in Ireland, however this is changing. Most schools are still under the management of one denomination, but not always Catholic. There are also a number of non-denominational and multi-denominational schools. Schools that cater for a single religion will likely give priority to children of that religion but will also give places to with other religious beliefs, or none. Religion classes are standard within these schools, but they are not mandatory.
All children in Ireland are entitled to free primary and post-primary education. Most primary schools are state-funded, meaning no annual fees. However, schools often need to fundraise for additional resources so you may be asked for donations. There are private schools, where a fee will be required. You may need to pay for books, uniforms etc.
Third level education in Ireland consists of institutes of technology, universities and colleges of education. Most of these are state-funded, though will usually require a student services fee, which varies between institution. Each institution sets its own tuition fees. These are payable unless you have been resident in the EU/EEA or Switzerland for 3 of the 5 years previous to the commencement of your course.
Students from EU/EEA or Switzerland do not require a student visa to study here.
Applications go through the Central Applications Office. Generally the system for applications is based on points gained from the Leaving Certificate examination. Of the subjects the student has studied for this exam, the 6 best grades are chosen and converted into points (eg. A1 honours grade = 100 points, A2 honours grade = 90 points). Each third level course will require a minimum number of points for entry (eg. Medicine requires 560 points, business requires 340 points)
If you have completed post-primary school exams, and wish to have these recognised for entry into an Irish third level institute, contact Qualifications Recognition.
A small number places are reserved for mature students (over 23 years). Applications are not based on the points from the Leaving Certificate and you usually must apply directly to the college of your choice.