Parents abroad: ‘I’m glad my kids won’t have to face Leaving Cert’

Less religion, faster pace, lower costs: Irish parents on how schools compare to Ireland


Last week, we asked Irish parents abroad to tell us about the school systems where they live, and how approaches to education there differ to Ireland. Below is a selection of the responses we received from around the world.

Angela Gillette, Portland, Oregon: ‘No religion is allowed to be taught, that’s a huge benefit’

My two kids aged 8 and 10 both attend the local public elementary school.

I was back home in late August where the news was full of stories about back to school costs. Over here there are no uniforms, the schools provide the textbooks, and school costs overall for me are about $50 a year for pencils, crayons and small items.

The local school serves all kids from 5 to 11 and is very diverse - we have Somali, Spanish, Chinese, Iraqi and many other ethnicities enrolled. No religion is allowed to be taught in US public schools and to me that’s a huge benefit. I haven’t attended Catholic Church in years and am pretty much non-religious, so not having to think about it in school applications is a big plus.

Actually we had no school application process; my kids live in the catchment area for the neighbourhood school so that’s where they are entitled to go. I just had to show up with a birth cert and proof of our address a few weeks before they started back in Kindergarten.

My eldest will move on to middle school next year, spending three years there followed by four years at high school. My older nieces and nephews in Ireland are in Leaving Cert and Junior Cert cycles, and I’m honestly glad my kids won’t have to face that in the US. The stress seems to be huge at home with points in a Leaving Cert counting for everything. My kids can leave high school with many choices and careers open to them that they can explore in university.

I don’t see myself moving home anytime soon, if ever. My American husband and I have known each other almost 20 years, married now for 10. Since my kids are not baptised I think it would be difficult to adapt or even apply to many Irish schools unless something changes with school applications in Ireland.

Emer O’Doherty’ s two children attend school in Dubai.Emer O’Doherty, Dubai: ‘Private education costing €12,000 is the only option for expats’

We live in Dubai with our seven-year-old girl and four-year-old boy. We have been living in the Middle East for six years, first in Oman, and for the past two years in Dubai.

The children go to a large private international school which is British curriculum. Both are thriving, but I feel they are missing out on certain things from the Irish education system and Irish life generally, for example the Irish language and history. I stock up on Irish curriculum books when we return to Ireland to escape the heat of summer, and I try to incorporate a little history and Gaeilge into their lives.

Our school is very nurturing for Early Years. All classes are capped at 19 children, with a teacher and two helpers. It is private so it costs a lot though, about €12,000 per year per child. Private education or homeschooling are the only options open to us as expats here.

We will return to our small village in North Cork next May for our little girl to make her first holy communion, which is important to us as a family. As we live in an Islamic country there is no option for Catholic instruction in the school so I am preparing her myself, with the help of our parish priest in North Cork and curriculum books.

Darragh and Lorcan Doyle started school in London last week.Sheelagh Adshead, London: ‘We were oblivious to the catchment zone frenzy we were entering’

My twin boys - Darragh and Lorcan aged four - started school last week in South London. We moved to London late last year after six years in New York, completely oblivious to the “catchment zone” frenzy we were entering into.

In London state school places are determined by your proximity to the school, and for popular schools the zone can be perilously small. When it came to filling in the online form we were a bit on the back foot; we hadn’t been to any of the open days, and in the case of Catholic schools, hadn’t notched up two years of continuous weekly mass attendance (some of which take a register).

After canvassing the neighbours and getting a letter from a monsignor in New York, we picked out five schools, a mix of faith and secular. In the end we put the nearest school as our first choice.

Unbeknown to us, our nearest was also the most popular - as well as being rated “outstanding” by Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills), it was the most subscribed-to school in the area and has appeared on various “top state schools” lists. I was shocked to hear that in the past, over-zealous parents had rented flats in the area just before application time to get into the catchment zone. Our local council actually thought we fell into this bracket, and we were asked to provide additional proof that we were not bogus applicants - it all seemed a bit too convenient to them that we happened to move in a few weeks ahead of the application deadline.

We managed to prove ourselves and when it came to “offers week”’ (which brought me right back to my CAO days), our boys were accepted, but honestly we would have been happy with any of the schools on the list. Since then people have said “well done” and “congratulations” for getting in, which I find hilarious.

It is early days, but so far it appears that the UK’s state school system is heavily loaded towards the middle class - if a school gets rated outstanding, property prices in the catchment zone go up, and the catchment zone shrinks. If everyone goes this mad at primary school level, I can’t imagine what the second level process will be like!

Denise Record, Dubai: ‘Education was the biggest factor in our decision to return to Ireland’

We’ve just left the British curriculum (BC) in Dubai to return to Ireland. Education was the biggest factor in our decision to move back.

There is more PE and emphasis on exercise in BC schools which is excellent, but the pace of the academic classes is very fast and in my view, not enough time is spent on securing the basics, which the Irish curriculum does very well.

Streaming of children in the BC is something I totally disagree with. The 75 per cent of students in a class who are average or below end up constantly striving for unobtainable targets, and are acutely aware that they’re not “good enough”. The whole system is test led and SATS in year 2 and year 6 puts huge pressure on students and teachers alike. I am an Early Years teacher, and the British curriculum for this age group is excellent.

Both my boys are dyslexic and Irish schools and teachers are much more up to speed with special education needs. Families with children with learning difficulties from Ireland or the UK often arrive in Dubai only to realise the support they will receive is far less than what they would have in their home countries. More school places are available now than ever before as 21 new schools opened this year, but parents should check what support will be offered.

In Dubai, the majority of schools are profit-making businesses. Younger, less experienced staff are cheaper to hire, and as a result you’ll rarely have teachers in fee paying schools that have more than a few years’ experience.

If we had stayed, the fees for this year for both boys would have been equivalent to €36,500. It was part of my husband’s package for school fees to be paid, and the school was the second most-expensive in Dubai. Fees though are very high and cause a lot of worry for some parents.

There are huge benefits to living in Dubai; it made my children very tolerant and they’ve had some amazing experiences. It’s not real life though, and having them experience the normality and culture of Ireland became more important in latter years. Spending time with my aging parents, getting away from the hours of Arabic classes that it’s almost impossible to get an exemption from, and focusing more on the basics in school here have all been motivation for us to move back.

Darren and Viv Wade moved to Burlington in Ontario, Canada with their sons Jordan (18) and Lorcan (11) in 2015.Darren Wade, Ontario: ‘Our sons much prefer the Canadian school system’

Our eldest lad Jordan, who is now 18, finished his Leaving Cert very early in Ireland and found himself a year younger than most Canadians leaving school. He decided when we moved to Canada last year to return to school and complete grade 12, and picked subjects related to the course he is due to start this month, including ‘Healthy Active Living’, biology and kinesiology. He had to complete 40 hours voluntary work in the community as part of his passing grade. He loved it, as it was a continuous-assessment curriculum rather than a memory test like the Irish Leaving Cert.

We also had a 10-year-old, Lorcan, starting grade 6, and chose a Catholic primary school for him, out of sheer habit more than anything else. He too found it easygoing. He got no homework last year as his teacher believed home time was family time, and she covers the curriculum during school hours. But I believe this is just that particular teacher’s teaching method.

He is learning French three years ahead of taking a language in Irish system. Overall he seems to like the pace. He was up in the top 10 per cent of his class last year, which is very surprising considering he had a lot of adjusting to do, and had to learn a lot of Canadian history and geography for the first time.

When I asked them both what they think, they both much prefer the Canadian school system compared to Irish.

There is a considerable difference in the cost of Canadian system compared to the “free education” in Ireland. Apart from the educational field trips I don’t recall being asked for a “voluntary” compulsive donation I was shamed into paying every year at home.

Fiona Doolan, California: ‘We have no regrets’

We have just recently moved to the US again. We left the first time shortly after we had our second child, returning home to raise the children in Ireland surrounded by family. That was 11 years ago and we have just moved back.

Our decision to return to California depended very much on schools. Everything else was perfect but we just weren’t sure about the education system, and had heard that US non fee paying schools were awful. Our son was in first year and our daughter was in 4th class, both in a Gaelscoil. We were very happy with their schools in Ireland and thought long and hard about uprooting them for something less. We decided before committing to the move we would do a “test” trip for six weeks and put them into what would be our new local public school.

Learning the new system was a bit tricky to grasp, but as we began to become familiar with it, we could see the benefits. Our son headed into middle school, to 7th grade and our daughter into elementary 5th grade, and they instantly began to flourish. Private tutors were brought in to help them if they needed it, and additional classes were offered at no cost. Their support facilities to help students brush up or catch up are phenomenal, nothing like I have ever seen at home in a public school. Teachers offer early classes to allow students take additional subjects... I was amazed.

It is a continuous assessment learning environment and that’s the real difference. It is not a system of “one size fits all”, every student can have their needs tailor-made to suit them. Holidays are block periods, no mid-term breaks! Our children are allowed four sick days and everything after that has to be certified or justified.

We are grateful to have found such an incredible school for our children and we absolutely have no regrets about leaving Ireland’s education system.

Fionnuala Zinnecker: ‘We needed traditions of our own. Family traditions, not national traditions. Ones that suit our life, that integrate mine and my husband’s upbringing and that will form the memories of Christmas that our children will grow up with.’Fionnuala Zinnecker, Germany: ‘A lot is expected of school children’

At the age of 15 my class in our convent school in Drogheda was visited by a teacher from Germany. We grilled him on the German school system, amazed that they had no uniforms, that smoking in break time was allowed and wearing make-up was accepted.

That was over 20 years ago and in many ways, the Irish and German education systems are still very different.

We have three sons, aged 8, 6 and 2. Our middle boy has just started “erste Klasse”, the first year of the four-year German primary school system. Luckily our eldest is in the third year of primary, so we have a couple of years’ experience of the school system here under our belts.

The differences are apparent long before the first day of school. Kindergarten, while not compulsory or an official part of the education system, is where almost all children in Germany spend the three years prior to starting school.

The school starting age is six, with many children whose birthday occur in Autumn starting school at almost seven years of age. Often they cannot yet read or write. Learning that is part of the school curriculum, not a kindergarten job.

The first day of school is a milestone in any family, but here it is a big event. Parents take the day off work. The grandparents and other relatives visit and bring gifts for the school child and come to the school on the first morning when the school puts on a special assembly with musical performances and a welcome speech. The parents give their child a “Schultuete”, a large, cone-shaped container like an upturned wizard’s hat, which they will have filled with school supplies, sweets, some small toys, maybe a book. The schoolchild is the centre of attention for the day.

How children settle into school is closely observed by the teacher, as are their performance and their skills. An attempt is made to iron out difficulties early on through sharing information with the parents on the children’s behaviour and level of competence.

From day one, a lot is expected of school children. By Christmas of their first year of primary they are expected to be able to read. They then move on to joined-up writing. The second year of school kicks off with learning to write with a fountain pen.

All of this learning is crammed into four hours a day for most pupils. The school day begins at 7.55am and ends at 12pm for the first and second year, extending to 1pm after that. Working without the support of a childminder or after school club is not possible for very many parents.

We are in the lucky position of having a local school which has the option of full-day school, from 7.55am to 4pm Monday to Thursday and till 12pm on Fridays. After lessons in the morning, there is a hot meal, paid for by the parents, then playtime. The afternoon is spent doing homework and activities including drama, table tennis, tennis, football, chess or garden club.

One thing that has impressed me with the system here is the cooperation between the health and education systems. During the annual check-ups with the paediatrician, speech and motor development is checked and recorded. Any issues with speech, such as a lisp, are observed. Prior to the child starting school the child will be referred to speech therapy so that he or she begins school with age-appropriate speech. Once school has begun, the teacher may recommend occupational therapy for concentration or motor difficulties, and the teacher plays a role in assessing and supporting the child.

Fionnuala Zinnecker blogs about life in Germany

Finbarr McCarthy, New South Wales: ‘The absence of religious influence is wonderful’

I emigrated to Australia in 1990 and as a result of an unexpected redundancy, retrained as a high school teacher in 2000. I have worked in a 1,400-student public comprehensive high school since then.

I grew up in Loughrea in Co Galway and attended the local De la Salle boys national school, followed by one year at St Raphael Co-ed secondary school. My parents then enrolled me at Cisterian College Roscrea for the next five years. I did my leaving cert in 1984, stuffed it up and repeated it at CBS Westport Co Mayo where my family had moved to.

The main difference in public schools in NSW is the absence of religious influence. Of course parents can select so-called faith based schools, but the NSW Department of Education teaches 850,000 students every day and employs 60,000 staff to do so. The school year runs over four ten-week terms following the calendar.

I have been shocked recently by reports about how Irish kids’ schooling options are affected by their parents’ religious choices. In Australia if you live within the zone for a particular high school or its junior equivalent, you can enrol, regardless of siblings, religion, language, or any other marker for difference. Students with special needs are never turned away for any reason. Two years ago a new AUS$300,000 lift was built in our school just to accommodate one new kid with a disability.

As someone with deep experience of both countries’ education systems, I can say the absence of religious influence in public schools here in Australia is simply wonderful.

Orla Howard, Germany: ‘They cover a lot very quickly, but sometimes neglect the basics’

I’m originally from Navan and came to Germany in 1993 to work as a civil engineer for the German Railways (Deutsche Bahn). My daughters are aged 13 and 11 and we live in a small village about 10km from the city of Darmstadt, where my husband works and the girls attend a semi-private Catholic secondary school.

I’ve found the main differences to be the ages at which children attend school. They are in Kindergarten (not compulsary) from the ages of 3 to 6 or 7. They aren’t taught to read or write here though and you are not encouraged to have taught your child to read before starting school. Primary school is only four years, so they start secondary school very young (aged 10).

There are different types of secondary school depending on the child’s ability. It is only in a Gymnasium that they can sit the Abitur (Leaving Cert equivalent). In a Realschule they’ve to change to a Gymnasium after five years, if they want to sit it.

School starts at 7.50am and mostly finishes at 1.05pm. My elder daughter has school until 4.30pm twice a week but then usually wouldn’t get homework for the next day. Most people here are shocked when they hear the school day in Ireland finishes every day at 4pm, with homework to do in the evenings.

They tend to cover a lot very quickly here, but sometimes neglect the basics. Spelling tests seem to be non-existent. They are big on dictation tests, but these are only a few a year.

A lot of emphasis is put on how much they partake in class and 60 to 70 per cent of their grades are just on oral participation (which is great unless you have an extremely shy but very diligent child!)

I’ll never forget the first time my Roman brother-in-law browned some fresh-cut bread on a barbeque, rubbed in some garlic, drizzled them with olive oil and said “mangia (eat)”.Patricia Crotty, Italy: ‘It seems like a fairer system than the Leaving Cert’

I live in Pesaro, and have two daughters, aged 13 and 16, who have always gone to school here. Classes seem to range in size from 15 to 26, averaging between 20 and 22. I know they can be much higher in Ireland. Summer holidays are longer in Italy, Easter holidays are much shorter, but they go to school for slightly longer hours during the day (often including Saturday). But the hours over the year are similar to Ireland.

Subjects studied in primary school include Italian, English, maths, history, geography, science, art, gym and religion. Religion is optional, kids who don’t do it usually stay in the classroom, and can read or do homework. While Irish classes would have one teacher for everything, here they can have up to six teachers for different subjects. Italian teachers probably work fewer hours but they are paid less.

Primary school finishes at age 11 and they do three years middle school. In the end, it’s quite similar to primary school. At the end of middle school, they have to do some standardised tests, and also prepare a (very) mini “thesis” which they have to present to all the teachers. The overall end mark is a combination of standard tests, marks got during the entire school year, and their thesis.

Secondary school starts at 14 and they do five years to finish at around 19 (although you can leave school at 16). You choose the type of secondary school you want and the broad choice is classics, science, linguistic, socio-economic, art, accounting, surveying, tourist, industrial, agricultural. They all do the basic subjects (Italian, English, maths, religion, gym), but then each focuses on the more specialised subjects. My daughter is doing the classics, so she would do five to six hours per week of Greek and Latin, and also starting this year, a few hours of philosophy, history and history of art.

Students have to pass all their subjects to progress to the next year (like university). If they fail a subject, they have to take repeats in August, and while things are apparently fairly lenient in autumn, there is the risk of failing the entire year.

Students sit tests that are standardised for the entire country in their final year (like the Leaving Cert), but like the middle school, their final mark is based on a combination of these tests, their marks during the year, and possibly a final thesis and interview. This is decided by all the teachers and an external examiner at special meetings held at the end of the year. It seems like a fairer system than the Leaving Cert, but it can be open to abuse, with certain teachers arguing more strongly for their “pets”.

Oral examination is strongly emphasised here. Right from primary school, the kids are brought up to the board during the year, and tested orally. Of course there are written tests too, but the oral ones are given just as much importance, which gives kids a chance to develop their ability to speak in public, and think on their feet.

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