In Ireland, formal education is compulsory from age six to age 15, (Primary and early Secondary Level) and considered a fundamental right under the constitution. This education is designed to provide a good rounded knowledge of our world, and provide a good base from which we can make more personal choices about our learning.
After the State exams at around age fifteen (Junior Cert), we have a greater chance to direct our own learning. For the final 2-3 years of Secondary school, we have to choose subjects from a number of options on offer in accordance with our interests, our aspirations and our level of commitment to the workload that the course will require. These choices can influence our personal direction in life and ultimately, our career path.
As we move on from Secondary school, the number of choices and opportunities expands dramatically. For those who continue their education, they may pursue courses in Third level or Further education programmes. With the exception of some private colleges, these courses are provided free to students under funding from the Department of Education and Science.
Over sixty percent of our second level students continue to Third level education. Students compete for course places through our CAO (Central Applications Office) system entry being determined by a formula based on supply and demand alongside the expected minimum entry requirements.
Graduates of third level courses frequently (and increasingly) continue their education to Masters or Doctorate levels, providing employers with high quality candidates for our modern economy.
Our government is committed to encourage as many as people as possible to educate themselves to the highest level as having a highly educated workforce is essential for our nation to compete economically with the rest of the developed world.
Education never stops. As humans, learning is part of what we are. There is always some question, some curiosity, something we would like to understand better whether it is something about the world of science, business, sport or whatever. Whether we follow our curiosity informally through conversation or books, or more formally by undertaking a course, learning goes on.
Lifelong learning is a term used to capture a range of courses that tap into our desire to take a more formal approach to understanding a subject we are interested in. This could be anything from pursuing a hobby (aerobics, creative writing etc.) to courses that lead directly towards career advancement (ECDL, Accountancy etc.).
Thousands of courses are available to people of all ages and interests throughout Ireland. These courses typically run from 6 weeks to two years and are privately run, and therefore incur fees. As the name suggests, these courses are characterised by attendance from people at all ages, and all educational levels. Many of these courses provide no certification they are simply for enjoyment, and this is reflected in the friendly and enjoyable atmosphere in which they are delivered.
Each year thousands of school leavers and adults undertake PLC courses (Post Leaving Cert) part of the Further Education system funded by the State. These are (normally one-year) courses for school leavers and adults that are run throughout Ireland, mostly by local VECs (Vocational Education Committees). These courses cover a wide range of topics and are designed to prepare students for particular jobs, or as an alternative pathway into the Third Level system.
People in all levels of employment can be challenged by the speed at which our economy progresses, and as a result need to continuously educate themselves within their area of expertise. There are hundreds of professional development courses run to facilitate this need, most are short courses aimed at increasing knowledge or skills in a specific area.
Not everyone has had, or taken, the opportunity to receive a formal education. Adults who now want to develop their basic skills (e.g. literacy, writing) can avail of specialised training run in VEC colleges around the country. These courses are free and can be tailored to the individual needs of participants.
Aside from the more formal and career specific knowledge gained through third level education, there are a range of training opportunities designed specifically for people who want employment in sectors such as construction, tourism, farming etc. These courses include trade and craft apprenticeships, and specific training for careers related to fisheries, food, hospitality, tourism, farming, forestry or crafts. Many of theses training opportunities are also available to students who want to leave school at the end of Junior cycle.
The State provides a number of courses and programmes designed to assist unemployed people increase their skills, and hence be in a better position to find new employment. These programmes are run by a number of agencies and serve people of different ages and circumstances. FAS, the Training and Employment Authority, also provide courses for current workers in certain industry sectors that have been marked for attention by FAS.
Despite the wide variety of study options and courses available in Ireland, significant numbers of people leave home every year to take up courses abroad. The UK is the most popular but opportunities exist in all corners of the world. Some 20,000 Irish students are enrolled in foreign universities annually, mainly in the UK, and to a lesser extent, the USA and Australia.
For most people, much of their education and training is focused on their career. At the successful end of a challenging course, we expect an award that is valuable and recognised by our potential employers. In todays global economy, we also can expect that our award is recognised throughout the world. The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) provides a way to compare qualifications, and to ensure that they are quality assured and recognised at home and abroad.
Education is funded by the state up to the end of Senior cycle and on into most Further educations and Third level courses. In many cases, however, registration fees apply which are not covered by the state. In the case of Third level entry these are expected to be in the region of 900 - 1,600 for those entering in 2009.
Post Graduate courses (Fourth level) and most Adult education courses are not free. For information on grants and other forms of assistance, go to www.studentfinance.ie