Upon the establishment of the Irish Free State and partition, the education legislation of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State diverged. Educational legislation was changed significantly in Northern Ireland after the partition so that each state followed a different path.

In the Free State, education proceeded along the denominational line. The non–denominational training college was closed, and its student teachers transferred to denominational colleges.

The Department of Education was formed, and the various educational functions of the existing state bodies were transferred to it. Eoin O’Neill became the first minister for education in the Irish Free State Government.

The system based largely on administrative circulars continued. The rules for national schools as amended and supplemented continued and are still significant.

The Provisional Governments (1919-22) introduced the Irish language as an element of the curriculum. Irish was to be taught or used as a medium of instruction for at least one hour a day where the teacher was competent to use.

In the late 1920s, the State founded and built seven preparatory colleges to provide secondary education for teacher candidates. There were managed by Church bodies on a denominational basis and more principally located on the periphery of Irish speaking areas.

School Attendance

The first substantial piece of legislation was the School Attendance Act 1926. This required that children between the ages of six and fourteen attend school. The right to home education was preserved,  provided that a certain minimum education in the home was given.

The School Attendance legislation was updated in 1967. The system based on courts prosecution refines remained. Ultimately, the legislation was replaced by the Education Welfare Act 2000.

Primary Schools

There are over 3,000 primary schools most of which are owned privately by church denominations. A small number of state schools exist, either for historical or modern reasons. This includes pre-independent schools vested in the Commissioners for National Educational, model schools, and state-owned schools established for specific purposes.

Although school lands are usually owned by the patron, over 95% of the building costs and the costs of teacher salaries are met by the Department of Education.  A number of multi-denominational schools or “Educate Together” schools have been established by parents with the support of the Department of Education.

Gaelscoileanna have been established on the initiative of parents. The Department of Education may purchase the site and provide up to 100% capital building program. They may opt for diocesan patronage or that of a national diocesan body, which is a company formed under the Companies Act. An Foras Patrunachta is the independent patronage company for Gaelscoileanna that elect not to be under diocesan patronage.

Secondary Schools

Secondary schools, largely under religious management continued to predominate in secondary education, after the foundation of the State. The Intermediates and Leaving Certificate examinations were introduced in 1924. The Intermediate Education Act substituted capitation payments for the payment by results.

Secondary schools continued to be vested in either religious orders diocesan authorities,  governors or other parties. Provision was made in 1924  for the payment of capital grants for each recognized student. Most students also paid a fee at the school’s discretion.

State expenditure continued to be limited until the1960s. As funding increased State control and influence increased. Secondary schools still educate more than half of students at the post-primary level.

The Education Act 1998 covers both primary and post-primary schools. It is dealt with in detail in separate chapters.


Thomas Derrig became Minister for Education during his first Fianna Fail governments from 1932 to 1939. The Fianna Fail government sought to extend the use of Irish as a medium of instruction at both primary and secondary levels. A revised program for National Schools was introduced in 1934. An incentivization scheme was introduced at secondary level.

Eamon de Valera briefly took the role of Minister for Education in addition to Taoiseach in 1939. He restored the earlier practice of details specification of syllabus content and prescribed texts in classic and modern languages.

The provisions of the Vocational Educational Act were applied to the Cities of Cork, Limerick and Waterford in 1942.

Technical and Vocational

Technical education commenced under the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction at the turn of the century. A Commission on Technical Education was established in 1926. Its report was largely reflected in the Vocational Educational Act 1930.

It established a structure for vocational schools,  supported by local authority rates. The purpose was to provide continuation apprenticeship and technical education.

The Apprenticeship Act 1931 was also based on the report. The acceptance by the churches of the Vocational Education legislation was based in part, on assurances was given by the State that the Vocational Educational schools would not impinge on the church-run Secondary Schools. The Intermediates and Leaving Certificate examinations were not available to VEC students.

Vocational education schools were established in 1930. They were provided by the State and administered by vocational educational authorities. The authorities consisted of representatives of local authorities. Councillors sat on vocational education committees.

Initially, vocational education committees prepared students for the Group Certificates and were less academic than the corresponding Intermediate and Leaving Certificate, usually say by students in secondary schools. In the 1960s a common Intermediate Certificate was introduced for vocational and secondary schools.

Vocational Educations Act  1970 facilitated the joint ownership and management of schools by VEC’s and other parties. Community schools were facilitated by the Vocational Education (Amendment) Act 1970. It facilitated the amalgamation of vocational and secondary schools into community schools.

Many amalgamations took place between secondary schools and VEC schools, usually in a new State built school premises. Community schools account for approximately 10 % of all second-level students.

Community and Comprehensive

A number of Community Colleges were established by VECs on a non-denominational basis. These were under the control of VECs but were managed in the same manner as community schools. Some vocational schools were restructured as Community Colleges.

The State established a number of comprehensive schools in the mid-1960s with state funds. They were leased to trustees under a deed of trust for educational purposes. Less than 20 comprehensive schools were established.


The government established a Committee on  University Education in 1925. The University Act 1926 provided for some new faculties within the National University. The Royal College of Science was incorporated in University College Dublin.

The faculty of General Agriculture was established. By 1929, the University College Galway was appointed to do special work within through Irish.

A number of new universities were established by legislation, in particular,  Dublin City University and the University of Limerick.  Legislation reestablished the three constituent colleges of the National University as full Universities. It updated its structures and its relationship with the State.

Special University Scholarships were introduced for Gaeltacht areas. By the early 1940s, 12% of National Schools and 28% of secondary schools in English speaking areas used Irish as a medium of instruction.


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