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Moving to Ireland: Primary School 101

Last week my kids started school. In a foreign country.

I am the first to admit, over the course of my children’s lives, I have spent way too much time worrying thinking about their education. I really thought, at least as it relates to this topic, I had finally settled into my version of chill mom mode, but then we up and moved to Ireland.

Don’t get me wrong, Ireland is AWESOME and I don’t regret coming for a second. In fact, you should all join me here. But, I’m back to obsessing thinking about my kids’ education again.

Navigating the school enrollment landscape in Ireland has been tougher than I anticipated.

If you are moving to Ireland, or just curious, here are some important things we’ve learned about the Irish education system mainly as it relates to elementary or primary school. Please note: I’m not an expert. This is simply my experience thus far. At the end of this post, I’ll tell you what we decided to do.

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TERMINOLOGY
Here is some terminology I found helpful.

1. Instead of grade, it is class. 1st class, 2nd class, etc.
2. Elementary school is called primary school and runs through class 6.
3. Instead of pre-k and kindergarten, they have junior and senior infant classes.
4. Instead of middle and high school, it’s called secondary school. It’s broken into cycles: junior cycle (3 years), transition year (1 year) and senior cycle (2 years). However, only the first 3 years are required (or until age 16).
5. Public schools are often called national schools – especially at the primary level.
6. Most primary schools are English speaking, but require Irish to be taught as a subject. You may hear the term Gaelscoil. This is an Irish language immersion school – there are close to 150 of them in the country.
7. Ireland still has some schools that are separated by gender. In other words, a girls school and a boys school.

Here are some links to helpful information:
Irish Department of Education

Brief Description of the Irish Education System

Wikipedia

IRELAND HAS NO SCHOOL DISTRICTS
Schools in Ireland are open enrollment. If you live in one town and want your kids to go to a school in another town – even a public school – you can!

The catch is you have to apply first.

It doesn’t matter what school you are applying to public or private, there will be an application process.

Now I’m going to rain on your parade and I hate to do that because I really love parades. If you have just moved to Ireland, chances are all the schools you want your kids to go to will be full. That’s because people will apply YEARS in advance for their child to attend a particular school. Our daughter is entering 4th class and we were told by several people that we need to start applying to secondary schools now.

No pressure.

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PICK A SCHOOL FIRST OR A HOME FIRST?
Our relocation assistant often expressed sympathy for our dilemma of enrolling our kids in school. Do you look for a school first or do you look for a home first? Just because you find a home does not mean your child will have a place in a school nearby.

Now, I’ve heard that if ALL of the schools in your area are full, there are some public schools that can make an admissions exception. I just haven’t been able to get a real clear answer from anyone on that topic. If an exception is made to admit your child due to a proximity issue, it is safe to say that the school is going to be over-crowded. So that should factor into your enrollment decision.

Also, you can’t enroll your children in an Irish school until they have a PPS number, which is like an Irish Social Security number. They can’t get a PPS number until you are legally in the country and have some sort of permanent address. If you were planning on popping into the country for a week as a tourist and enrolling your kids in school – it’s not going to happen.

If you are moving to Ireland during the school year, you need to anticipate a several week lag in when you can enroll your kids in school. If you move during the summer, you need to anticipate that the school offices will be closed sometime around the first week of July. That means if you don’t have your child enrolled before the administration leaves for the summer, you won’t be able to get in touch with anyone to even see if you can enroll your child in that school. You may have more luck in finding the offices in a private school open during July/August, but it depends on the school.

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THERE IS NO SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE IN EDUCATION
91.1% of schools in Ireland are run by the Roman Catholic church (source). These are government funded schools – public school. Children in these schools spend at least 2.5 hours per week on Catholic religious instruction, including preparing to take the sacrament (source).

When you apply to a school you will be asked your religion.

The school’s admission guidelines will, by and large, prioritize the acceptance of Catholic children over any other child.

If you want to opt your child out of religious instruction, you are able to do so. Accommodations for this request vary based on the resources of the school.

There is a movement underway in Ireland to remove the Roman Catholic church from public school management. As you can imagine, this is a sensitive and highly political subject. It’s safe to say it will be a long, slow process. In the meantime, non-denominational schools are growing in number, but comparatively speaking, are still a small percentage of the overall number of schools.

Here’s some additional information:
Irish Times article

Catholic Bishops Inclusion Good Practices PDF

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SCHOOL LUNCH
In public primary school, all kids are provided a free lunch and snack. Lunch is some variation on a sandwich, piece of fruit and water. There is a menu where the kids can select if they want a ham sandwich, jam sandwich, etc. My understanding is that most kids, unless they have allergies, utilize this school benefit.

For private schools, you will have to inquire separately as to whether or not meals are provided.

TRANSPORTATION
With exceptions for some rural areas, there are no school buses in Ireland (double check for your area to be sure). It is assumed that kids will either live close enough to walk or ride bikes/scooters to school. Alternatively, many kids take public transportation to school.

I have heard about “walking school buses” in Dublin, but I haven’t heard of one in my area. A walking school bus is a route a volunteer will walk each day, “picking up” kids along the way so they aren’t walking to and from school unsupervised.

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HIDDEN COSTS
If you are moving from the United States to Ireland – even if your kids are going to a free, public school – you need to be aware of some hidden primary school costs that you’re likely to incur in August before school goes back into session. 

In general, Irish kids are on summer holiday (vacation) during the calendar months of July and August.

Uniforms
All kids in Ireland wear uniforms to school. Departments stores sell the basics such as white shirts and grey trousers and the prices are very reasonable. A couple of Euros for a shirt, for instance. However, a lot of schools will require a special cardigan or jumper (sweater) with the school’s logo. These are purchased from a specially designated school uniform company of which there are 2 or 3 in Ireland. This is where things can get expensive – especially if the school requires a special jacket and tracksuit too. If this is the case, don’t be surprised if you are spending upwards of 200 euros per child, not including shoes, just for the bare minimum.

Speaking of shoes, almost all schools will require black school shoes on uniform days. On PE days, trainers (tennis shoes) are acceptable. Shoe stores in Ireland have entire sections devoted to black school shoes. And still, the selection isn’t that awesome.

Books and Supplies
All kids, regardless of whether you are going to a public or private school, pay for school supplies AND books. You will be issued a book list when your child is enrolled and informed which local store carries the books your child will need. In our first year here, we have spent approximately 130 euros per kid on books and supplies.

If your child ends up not writing in a particular book, you can sell it back to the bookstore. The reason they wouldn’t write in a book is that they will do all of the problems/work in a separate “copy or sum” book.

Activities
Depending on what type of school you go to, the kids may be asked to provide their own sports equipment. Our kids had to buy a field hockey stick, mouth guard and shin guards. This was around 45 euros per child.

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WHAT DID WE DECIDE?
I’m so glad you asked! I never thought I’d say this, but we opted to send our kids to private school.

This is where I will digress and say if you are in Ireland on a short-term expat package, private school is a common benefit your family will receive. We are not here on an expat package. We are here as a permanent hire – for whatever that is worth in the corporate world. So our benefits package for moving did not include money specifically designated for years and years of on-going schooling.

Our reasons for sending our kids to private school are somewhat convoluted. It was one of those “this is the best decision for right now” moments and we will reevaluate our decision every year.

First, we found a private school sort of close to our home that a) had an opening for both children and b) we thought would be a great fit for our children from an educational, social and cultural perspective.

Second, private school is 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of what private school costs in the United States. This was a game changer for us.

Third, our kids were accepted into a local public school, but I had a really bad experience with the acceptance process. We were able to narrow in on a geographic location (for where we would live) on the last day of school. So when I called to see if the school had availability next year, I caught them at an understandably bad time. After the last day of school, the school office was only open for one week. I was told I could not come in to tour the school. I could not come in and meet the principal. After speaking with the school secretary, I got an email instructing me to “show up on the first day of school and we will figure out where to place your kids.” They couldn’t even tell me what grade they would be in. In fairness, I don’t know what would have happened if I had just shown up in person and knocked on the school door. Maybe I would have got that tour, maybe I wouldn’t have.

I’m not a helicopter parent, but that level of dismissivenss was just way over-the-top for me. They do know that I grew these humans in my stomach and I have dedicated my life to cutting the crusts off their bread, right?

But truly, I’m not a helicopter parent.

I’m sure it would have all worked out fine, but the school’s attitude just made all of my protective instincts scream out loud. Given that we had just moved to a new country, these protective instincts were already working overtime. Here I am trying my darnedest to reduce the amount of uncertainty my kids are experiencing with this move and the school was heaping more uncertainty into the mix. Maybe chalk it up to heightened emotions and an over-active imagination, but I wasn’t happy about the situation.

Last, the “Catholic church running the schools” issue is one I am still pondering because we aren’t Catholic. I thought I would be okay with it. After all, we knew moving here that the Roman Catholics ran the school system. I just didn’t quite realize that the first thing the school secretary would ask me is when my kids were baptized. My response? “We aren’t Catholic.” Her response? “Oh. Well then.”

Would my kids face discrimination because they aren’t Catholic? I don’t know. The Church makes efforts to say they are inclusive in documents like this one. I do know it is interesting to experience the separation of church and state issue from the viewpoint of the minority. And as a human being who is constantly trying to learn and grow, it is illuminating to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

BOTTOM LINE
Do your own research. Ask questions. Keep an open mind because your experience might be totally different than mine. And always trust your intuition. When you do, I’m sure you will be happy (or mostly so) with your decision. My kids had a great first day of school and I’m hoping they will have a great year as well.

 

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