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Education in Ireland, by Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Dominic Murray, Alan Smith and Ursula Birthistle ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna
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The total public expenditure on education in the Republic of Ireland during 1993 was £1.7 billion for a total student population of 960,928. This represents almost 20% of Government expenditure and 6% of GDP.[1]

An OECD report in 1995 (based on 1992 figures) places the Republic of Ireland relatively low on the list of spending per pupil at pre-school, primary and secondary levels. The primary sector receives approximately 50% of the OECD average, and the secondary over 50% of the OECD average. The third-level sector was well funded by European standards.

Table 1.1: Expenditure per student by sector

Source: OECD report, 1995 based on 1992 figures (converted from dollars to IR£)

A report of the National Education Convention (1994) and the National Economic Social Forum Report on Unemployment have highlighted inequalities in educational funding. Both reports suggest that more financial priority be given to pre-school and primary sectors. The third-level sector receives significantly higher funding than any other level although within this sector research is seen as an area that has been under-funded and under-developed.

Funding of Primary schools
In terms of capital development it is common for school sites to be provided by the local parish or community. 85% of capital costs are met by the State (95% in designated disadvantaged areas).

Teachers salaries are paid by the Department of Education and recurrent costs are met by a combination of a capitation grant per pupil paid by the Department of Education and a local contribution equivalent to at least 25% of the capitation grant.

The capitation grant covers lighting, heating, cleaning, maintenance and the provision of teaching materials. There is a small library book grant of £2 per pupil paid to the local library which then lends books long-term to schools. Art materials, computers or other extras must be financed out of the capitation grant or by fund-raising.

Table 1.2: Current Capitation Grants

Primary£45 (£75 in disadvantaged areas)
163;40 (in Gaeltacht 'Irish speaking' areas)
£60 (in English speaking areas)
Secondary£177 (£207 in designated disadvantaged areas)
As for Secondary schools plus
£56.80 per pupil (all subjects through Irish)
£45.44 (some subjects through Irish)
Source: Department of Education, 'Brief Description of the Irish Education System,(1995)

Funding at Secondary level
The level of capitation grant is the same for all second level schools, but other differences in funding exist between the different types of second-level school.

Secondary schools The Department of Education pays 90% of approved building and equipment costs. Teachers salaries and allowances are paid almost in full by the Department and recurrent costs are met by capitation grants.
Vocational schools Over 90% of costs are funded by the Department of Education and the balance is funded by the VEC's.
Comprehensive schools 100% State funded.
Community schools 100% State funded apart from a small local contribution towards capital costs.

Differentials in State expenditure on different school types are illustrated by the following figures from a recent Department of Education study:

Table 1.3: State expenditure on different school types per pupil

School type
Voluntary Secondary schools
Community and Comprehensive schools
Vocational schools
Source: Brief Description of the Irish Education System 1995

75% of second-level pupils attend Voluntary Secondary schools and demands have been made for parity of funding between all types of school.

At secondary level schools are given a budgetary provision at the start of the school year based on expenditure during the previous year. There is no special provision for library books and items such as computers since it is expected that the costs of these will be met from the capitation grants. Schools also undertake fund-raising for items such as musical instruments and school trips.

Although officially schooling in the Republic of Ireland is free, most schools find it necessary to fundraise. This may adversely affect schools in disadvantaged areas where such parental contributions may cause hardship. Coolahan (1994) has argued for increased funding for students from lower socio-economic groups to assist in increasing their participation rates in third-level education.

The OECD Report (1995) indicates that primary schools in the Republic of Ireland have the largest class sizes in Europe and the third largest class sizes at secondary level.

Table 1.4: Republic of Ireland pupil:teacher ratios

SectorPupil:Teacher ratio
Second level16.7:1
Source: Department of Education 1993


During 1993-94 the education budget in Northern Ireland was approximately £1.23 billion for a total number of students at all levels of 335,425. There are two principal channels of funding. The first is the management of school finances by the Education and Library Boards. The second is the delegation of financial responsibility to the Boards of Governors of individual schools through the Local Management of Schools (LMS) scheme.

All Nursery, Primary and Secondary schools are funded on the basis of a formula which is based primarily on enrolment figures, but also takes into account the cost of premises, deprivation and the higher cost of small schools. Formula funding is intended to ensure that funding is objective, transparent and allows for flexibility at school level in prioritising needs.[3]

Expenditure per pupil is highest at third-level and lowest at primary level:

Table 1.5: Northern Ireland - expenditure per pupil

SectorExpenditure per pupil
Primary (including Nursery)
Second level
Further education
Source: DENI Compendium of NI Statistics, 1992/93 figures

Table 1.6: Northern Ireland pupil:teacher ratios

SectorPupil:Teacher ratio
Second level15.2:1
Source: DENI Compendium of NI Statistics, 1992/93 figures


Direct comparisons of statistics on funding between North and South are very difficult because of different accounting systems, different financial years and differences in currencies and rates of inflation. The two Departments of Education produced some comparisons of the second-level sectors for the annual Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland (ASTI) Conference in November 1995. It was emphasised that, due to the difficulties mentioned, some simplification was necessary and this must be borne in mind when interpreting these data.

Table 1.7: Comparison of Second Level Statistics

.North South
Population 12-18 yrs (1994)0.18 million 0.48 million
Enrolments (1992-93)145,008 358,347
Number of teachers involved in Second level education (1993/94)

Average teachers pay Second level before tax, incl. superannuation etc. Stg £21,745IR£24,533
Pupil/Teacher ratios (1993/94)15.1:1 16.7:1
Recurrent unit cost per pupil per annum at Second level (1993)
Stg £2,295

Participation rates at upper Second level (18)

Second level education costscurrent and capital (1993)
Stg £377m

Pay (% of total)
non-pay (% of total)
Source: D. Thornhill, ASTI Conference (1995)

At primary level, global comparative data is difficult to obtain and present. However, a case study carried out by the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO 1994) of six comparable schools in Limerick and Derry claims to highlight differences in provision and funding between the two jurisdictions. The study showed primary schools in the Republic of Ireland to be under-funded and under-resourced compared to those in Northern Ireland. The study also demonstrated higher pupil:teacher ratios and poorer promotional prospects for teachers in the six schools in the Republic of Ireland.

Table 1.8: Case Study: Six Primary Schools Limerick/Derry

.1 234 56
Enrolment37/37 107/120164/148187/188 275/294695/610
Class Teacher2/2 5/66/78/8 10/925/25
Admin. Principaln/n n/nn/yn/y y/yy/y
Total Teachers2/2 5/67/89/9 14/1328/29
Largest Class20/16 33/2633/2926/27 36/3136/29
Smallest Class17/11 13/1620/1520/14 26/2323/19
Average18.5/13.5 21.4/20.627.3/21.623/24 27.2/2728/23.5
PTR18.5/13.521.4/20 23.4/18.521/2119.6/22.8 24/21.3
Vice-Principal-/- 1/11/11/1 1/11/2
Other posts-/1 -/23/4-/4 1/75/16
Computer3/40/8 4/75/102/15 6/28
Printer0/40/8 1/23/71/14 2/15
TV0/21/2 1/11/11/2 4/4
Video0/11/2 1/11/11/2 4/4
Radio/Cassette2/2 5/78/78/6 6/516/31

At pre-school level, an OECD Report [4] stated that in 1988 in the Republic of Ireland 9% of the total public expenditure was directed towards this sector. This compares with 3.3% in the United Kingdom and 4.8% average in the OECD countries as a whole. The Republic of Ireland figures may be somewhat inflated since, although compulsory education is from the age of six, in practice most enter at 4-5. For example, 95% of all 5-6 year olds are in senior infant classes and 59% of 4-5 year olds are in junior infant classes. Both junior and senior infant classes are treated as pre-school.


The Department of Education for Northern Ireland (DENI) has overall responsibility for education, but many of its functions are devolved to other agencies within the system, particularly the Education and Library Boards (ELBs). The Education and Library Boards are defined in geographical terms and the current proposal is to reduce the number of ELBs from five to three. The composition and role of the Boards is described later in this report.

Since the Education Reform (NI) Order, 1989 there has also been further delegation of responsibilities to the Boards of Governors of individual schools, particularly in the area of financial administration.

The role of the Department of Education in Northern Ireland includes:

  • a strategic role in relation to the development and implementation of educational policy;
  • responsibility for education from nursery to further and higher education;
  • responsibility for sport and recreation;
  • youth services;
  • the arts and culture, including libraries;
  • development of community relations within and between schools;
  • teachers' salaries, pension and benefit schemes.

The more centralised nature of the Department in the Republic of Ireland has led to an emphasis on administrative matters. Comments on the need for strategic planning are included in the Green Paper and the report on the National Education Convention.[5] The recent Education Bill (1997)6 proposes new structures aimed at devolving responsibility for administration to ten new Regional Boards and to the schools themselves. The Department of Education would then have clearer responsibilities for policy and strategic planning, resource allocation, monitoring of standards and curricular planning.


Within both jurisdictions there are central bodies with responsibilities in education throughout each region. These include:

  • Curriculum Councils
  • Inspectorate
  • Higher Education Authorities
  • Certification bodies
  • Further education

Curriculum Councils
Both jurisdictions have Curriculum Councils which advise their respective Departments of Education on all curricular matters. However there are some differences in their roles.

In Northern Ireland the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has a statutory role in advising the Minister for Education on curricular matters. CCEA has a remit to monitor the curriculum, engage in research and in the development of guidance and INSET materials. CCEA is also responsible for the administration of the Transfer Procedure, for examinations and for all assessment procedures. CCEA consults widely with teachers and educationists through its advisory and working groups.

In the Republic of Ireland, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) is not a statutory body, but has an important role in an advisory capacity in relation to the curriculum and assessment procedures.

The NCCA consults widely through course committees for each curriculum subject before making recommendations to decision-makers within the Department of Education. Other curriculum bodies also undertake developmental work for the NCCA. These include the City of Dublin Curriculum Development Unit (CDU) and Shannon Curriculum Development Centre (CDC). The Dublin CDU is a VEC body while the Shannon CDC is managed by the Department of Education and the Board of Management of St. Patrick's Comprehensive School, Shannon.

The role of the Inspectorate within both education systems has been quite different in some respects but changes are likely to result in the role of the Inspectorate in the Republic of Ireland becoming more like that in Northern Ireland. One significant difference at present is that in the Republic of Ireland the Inspectorate is responsible for the examination system, including the setting of papers.

In Northern Ireland the Inspectorate advises and evaluates education at all levels, excluding the universities. Its remit includes evaluation of provision at the following levels:[7]

  • schools;
  • Further Education colleges;
  • Initial teacher training institutions;
  • the support services of the Education and Library Boards;
  • the Youth Service;
  • adult and community education where the providers receive funds from DENI;
  • training where the providers receive funds from the Training and Employment Agency (TEA).

The format of inspection in schools has changed from that of a single inspector to that of a team. There are two types of inspection: a general inspection which evaluates all aspects of the establishment with reference to its stated aims and policies and more focused inspections which evaluate specific areas of study.

Inspectors not only cover individual establishments, but also comment on provision within a given geographical area and survey areas of study and examples of good practice. Inspectors submit written reports on schools to DENI. These reports are published and are available on request to members of the public.

In the Republic of Ireland the Inspectorate has three primary roles under existing structures:

  • Advisory
  • Supervisory (to report on standards and quality, to inspect teaching)
  • Developmental (to promote and pilot projects).

At present the Inspectorate has three divisions - primary, post-primary and psychology/guidance. Every school is allocated a specific inspector and each school can expect to be visited by this inspector every 5-6 years. In addition, the inspector supervises teachers during their initial probationary period and carries out a major inspection at the end of their first year.

Traditionally, the Inspectorate has been responsible for the setting and conduct of examinations. They have also been involved in selection boards for the appointment of teachers, have served on management boards of Community schools and have been involved in the provision of in-service training. The Report on the National Education Convention (1994) criticises over-involvement in these areas and suggests that it detracts from their evaluative role. The Education Bill (1997) will put the inspectorate on a statutory basis. It also proposes a Regional Inspectorate under the authority of the proposed Education Boards and a smaller number in a Central Inspectorate in the Department of Education. The role of the Central Inspectorate will be:

  • Evaluative (standards, quality and effectiveness of policies)
  • Advisory (regarding policy)
  • Supervisory (with respect to the examination system)

The Regional Inspectorate's role will be:

  • Advisory (regarding school plans, in-service training, provision of psychological services and special needs)
  • Evaluative (involving regular, in-depth, whole-school inspections taking the school plan into account)

Higher Education Authorities
In both jurisdictions the universities are autonomous bodies funded by the respective Departments of Education. In the case of Northern Ireland, this funding comes through the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council (NIHEC). In the Republic of Ireland the equivalent body is the statutory Higher Education Authority (HEA). Both bodies have similar functions in advising their respective Departments on all matters relating to the provision of and investment in higher education. According to the White Paper in the Republic of Ireland and the Universities Bill, the remit of the HEA will be extended on a phased basis to all publicly funded third level colleges.[8]

Certification Bodies
In the Republic of Ireland universities validate their own courses in addition to courses offered by other institutions which they recognise for example, teacher training colleges and the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). The National Council for Educational Awards (NCEA) is a statutory body that validates degree and other courses in the non-university sector. The National Council for Vocational Awards (NCVA) was established in 1991 to co-ordinate assessment and certification procedures in the area of vocational education and training. There are also smaller validating bodies, such as CERT (The State Tourism Training Agency), FÁS (The Training and Employment Agency), Teagasc and the Farm Apprenticeship Board. The White Paper has recommended the appointment of a co-ordinating authority (Teastas) for these smaller bodies.[9]

In Northern Ireland the universities also validate their own courses in addition to courses offered by other institutions such as colleges of further and higher education. Vocational courses are mainly validated by national examining bodies such as Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC); City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI); Royal Society of Arts (RSA) and professional bodies.[10]


In Northern Ireland responsibilities for local administration of education are devolved from the Department of Education to Education and Library Boards which cover separate geographical areas. In the Republic of Ireland these responsibilities have been more disparate, but new legislation is being introduced to create Regional Boards of Education.

The Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland
Public education in Northern Ireland is administered locally by five Education and Library Boards (ELBs), although there are current proposals to reduce the number of ELBs.

Members are reappointed every four years. Membership of the Boards consists of:

  • District counsellors;
  • Representatives of transferors of schools (i.e. Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church which transferred most of their schools to the State);
  • Representatives of trustees of maintained (mostly Catholic) schools;
  • Other interested persons

The Boards are 100% funded by DENI with the following roles:

  • ensuring sufficient numbers of schools and colleges of all kinds for their area;
  • responsible for all schools and colleges under their management;
  • provision of practical and advisory support to schools;
  • responsible for equipment, maintenance and running cost of maintained schools;
  • responsible for capital costs for voluntary schools, including maintained and voluntary Grammar schools;
  • awarding of university and other scholarships;
  • assessment for and provision of special education needs;
  • provision of milk and school meals;
  • provision of free books and transport;
  • provision of curriculum advisory and support services
  • Boards are the employing authority for teachers in the controlled sector

Proposed Regional Boards in the Republic of Ireland
It is proposed that newly-established Regional Boards will be appointed on a five yearly basis. Membership of each Board is expected to be constituted as a core Board of:

  • Nominees of patrons/trustees/owners/governors, including Vocational Education Committees, of which one shall be nominated by school management organisations;
  • Parent nominees, nominated by the National Parents Council (Primary and post-Primary);
  • Teacher nominees, of which one shall be nominated by school management organisations;
  • Local elected representatives;
  • Ministerial nominees.

The core Board may also be able to nominate additional persons, other than the above categories, for example, minority group representatives, or persons with special expertise. It is proposed that each of the groups on the Boards are to have equal representation.[11]

The Boards will receive annual grants from the Department of Education. It is envisaged that the new Boards will co-ordinate services in their areas for primary and second level schools, as well as for adult and continuing education, vocational education and training, outdoor education centres, youth services and sporting activities. The Boards will channel Departmental funds for recurrent expenditure to Primary and Second-level schools and grants to Vocational schools via the Vocational Education Committees. They will also be responsible for the redeployment of teachers, monitoring and enforcing of school attendance, and the rationalisation of specialist services by facilitating co-operation between schools.

The proposed Boards will also be entitled to own school buildings and to lease these to the school authorities in their area. This is a very significant development in terms of rationalisation of existing schools and provision of new and different types of schools. Buildings could thus be transferred from one type of school to another depending on demand in an area. There is on-going debate in relation to 'ownership', with many of the older traditional schools wanting to retain ownership, but it is intended that all new schools will be owned by the Regional Boards.


Council for Catholic Maintained Schools
Established as a statutory body in 1990, the CCMS is a co-ordinating body for all Catholic maintained schools which are under the auspices of diocesan authorities. It consults with and advises DENI and the ELBs on all matters pertaining to Catholic maintained schools. CCMS is the employing authority for teachers in this sector and draws up guidelines for diocesan education committees and Boards of Governors concerning teacher appointments. There are five diocesan education committees under CCMS.[13]

The Council has 36 members who each serve 4-year terms of office. Membership of the Council is comprised of:

  • the Archbishop of Armagh or person appointed by him
  • five Bishops or their appointees
  • 14 appointees of the Archbishop and Bishops
  • eight DENI representatives
  • four elected parents
  • four elected teachers

Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE)
Established in 1989, NICIE is a co-ordinating body for integrated schools and plays a developmental role in the establishment of integrated schools. The body is not statutory, but receives funding from DENI which has a statutory responsibility to support the development of integrated education.

The NICIE Board of Directors consists of twelve representatives allocated plus three possible co-optees:

  • 4 school directors
  • 1 teacher director
  • 1 principal director
  • 4 DENI nominees
  • 2 support organisations

Unlike controlled and maintained schools, the Board of Governors of an integrated school is the employing authority for teachers.

The Integrated Education Fund (IEF) is a charitable body which exists to raise funds for the establishment of integrated schools.14

Irish-medium schools
All Irish-medium schools are affiliated to 'Gaelscoileanna' based in Dublin, but for practical purposes within Northern Ireland there is an umbrella body called Gaeloiliúint (The Council for All-Irish Education). Gaeloiliúint was founded in 1991 and is a voluntary body which negotiates with DENI on issues relating to the Irish-medium schools. It also assists the establishment of new schools.

Transferor's Council
In Northern Ireland there is a Transferor's Council which takes a special interest in the affairs of schools which transferred to the State from church ownership (Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist). In recent years some members of the Council have made a case for formalising the role of the Council in relation to controlled schools, but to date, government has resisted these arguments.[15]

There are also a number of professional bodies and associations such as the Governing Bodies Association (GBA) which represents the interests of Grammar schools within the system.

Teacher Unions
The main teaching unions in Northern Ireland are:

  • National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers
  • Ulster Teachers Union (UTU)
  • Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO)
  • National Association of Head Teachers
  • Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL)
  • National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education
  • Association of University Teachers (AUT)

Current concerns for unions in Northern Ireland would seem to revolve around areas of increased workload and stress amongst teachers as a consequence of recent education reform and local management of schools. The unions have also taken a critical position with respect to the continued existence of selection at age 11.

Parent bodies
There has not been a strong tradition of parental organisation and involvement in education in Northern Ireland. There is a voluntary organisation, Parents Group for Education (PAGE), but this has no statutory recognition and receives no funding from the Department of Education. The organisation has no formal structure and most of its work has been on single issues, such as the Transfer Procedure. Some funding comes from school parent associations, but little continuity exists. Other forms of parental involvement in Northern Ireland comes through representation on the governing bodies of individual schools and through school Parent Associations. Recently a Parents' Charter for Northern Ireland came into existence which specifies levels of service which parents can expect from education.


Under existing structures the Vocational Education Committee (VEC) is the only intermediate body with responsibilities similar to the Education and Library Boards (ELBs) in Northern Ireland. It was intended to incorporate the VEC's into the new Regional Education Boards. It is now planned that the VEC's will be reduced in number from 38 to 23.

Prior to the proposed establishment of Regional Education Boards there have been a number of intermediate bodies representing various interests in education in the Republic of Ireland. These include:

Joint Managerial Body, which is an umbrella body for all second level management. The JMB includes representatives from Catholic, Protestant and other schools. It negotiates all conditions of service with the Department. There is a corresponding body for primary level. The Irish Vocational Education Association is the managerial authority for VEC (Vocational Education Committee) schools. With the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools having similar responsibilities for their sector.

The above three bodies negotiate at national level and have an input into the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). The multi-denominational and Irish-medium schools are outside these bodies and they negotiate with the Minister and Department of Education through Educate Together and Gaelscoileanna respectively.

Teachers Unions
The main teaching unions are:

  • Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO)
  • Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland (ASTI)
  • Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI)
  • Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT)

Current priorities of the INTO, ASTI and the TUI concern the issues of the teachers' role in pupil assessment and conditions for early retirement. New courses, such as the Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA), require assessment of the project work involved at certain stages over the course of the two year programme. There has been some general disagreement among the two post-primary unions about the use of teacher-based assessment.

The Ulster Teachers Union and the Irish National Teachers Organisation work closely together on cross border issues and both support the formation of a teaching council as do all unions in the Republic of Ireland.

Parent bodies
In the Republic of Ireland, the National Parents Council (NPC) was set up ten years ago on the initiative of the Minister for Education and received seed funding. The NPC consults with the Department of Education, the inspectorate, the unions, teachers' centres and a range of other bodies involved in education. [16] It is about to receive statutory recognition and receives an annual government grant (£50,000 in 1994). Parents also participate in Boards of Management and in parent associations. The Education Bill (1997) gives statutory right to parental representation on Boards of Management and on new Regional Education Boards, and will have a role in the selection of staff through representation on selection boards. Boards of Management will also have a statutory duty to promote the setting up of parents' associations in every school receiving State funding.[17]


1. Department of Education, (1995), Brief Description of the Irish Education System, Government Publications
2. Department of Education, (1995), Brief Description of the Irish Education System, Government Publications
3. DENI, (1994), Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland
4. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, (1995), Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators
5. Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
6. Department of Education, (1997), Education Bill, G.P.O., Dublin
7. DENI, (1991), The Northern Ireland Education and Training Inspectorate in the 1990's
8. DENI, (1994), Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland; Coolahan, J. (ed.), (1994), Report on the National Education Convention
9. Department of Education, (1995), White Paper: Charting our Education Future, Government Publications, Dublin
10. DENI, (1994), Information Brief on Education in Northern Ireland
11. Department of Education, (1995), White Paper: Charting our Education Future, Government Publications, Dublin
12. Council for Catholic Maintained Schools, Role and Function of the Council
13. (1989), Education Reform Order Northern Ireland. HMSO
14. Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, (1994), 4th Annual Report
15. (1995), Transferor's Council. Belfast
16. Colgan, A., (1994), 'Whose School? Parental and Denominational Rights', Fortnight, no. 332
17. Department of Education, (1997), Education Bill, G.P.O., Dublin

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