The first schools in Ireland were founded in pre-Christian times. Bardic schools were created to train poets, historians and lawyers. In the Middle Ages, monastic schools were the centres of learning in Ireland; they helped preserve knowledge and scholarship. The Catholic Church continues to play a role in the schooling of Irish children.

Irish children begin school at the age of six. Attendance is compulsory until the age of 15. There are three levels of education in Ireland: primary, second level (or post-primary) and third level. Many children also attend preschool when they are four or five. State-funded education is free, but students must pay for textbooks and supplies.

Most primary schools are run by the Catholic Church, although the Ministry of Education sets the curriculum. Primary schools are usually either boys' schools or girls' schools, although in recent years, some schools have become co-educational. The study of both the English and Irish languages is compulsory.

Most second-level schools (high schools) are financed by the government. More than half are academic secondary schools run by Catholic Church groups. The rest are vocational and special needs schools, which are not run by the Church. Academic education at the second level consists of a three-year junior cycle and a two- or three-year senior cycle. Students take an examination after the first three years. Those who pass receive the Junior Certificate and may proceed to the senior cycle. At the end of the senior cycle, students must pass the difficult Leaving Certificate examination. Students are tested on six or seven subjects. The final results of this state-administered examination determine each student's options for third-level education.

Students who go to vocational schools receive practical training in areas such as architectural drafting, accounting, computer programming and electronics, or in art, music, trades, domestic science and hotel management.

Almost half of Ireland's young people continue their studies at a post-secondary (or third-level) institution. Post-secondary education is available at universities, technological colleges and colleges of education. Full-time undergraduate students do not pay tuition fees. Scholarships, bursaries, grants and fellowships are available to students to help cover living and other expenses. Ireland has four universities: the University of Dublin (Trinity College), Dublin City University, the University of Limerick and the National University of Ireland, which has campuses in Dublin, Galway, Cork and Maynooth.
   Did you know?
In the 18th century, when the British banned Catholic schools, many Irish children attended secret classes held outdoors, known as "hedge schools." There were no textbooks and the teachers taught from memory.