The ups and downs of returning to school in Ireland from abroad

A big pull to move home was the ‘excellent education system’ but it hasn’t been easy

Arriving back at school last week, our youngest nudged us away from the door - "I'll go in by myself". I took it as a good sign as we start into our second year of school in Ireland.

A big pull for us to move here from Italy a year ago was to settle our daughters into what I've long claimed to my Canadian husband is an excellent education system.

With three years of school experience from Norway and two from Italy, has it worked out for us here? For the kids definitely yes, but the system (or lack thereof) has been difficult for us to slot into.

As people told us before we moved, “you can’t go too wrong with any of the Irish primary schools”. They could have added, “if you can get into one”.


It took us a while to get our head around the fact that in Ireland, unlike in most other countries, you can’t necessarily slot your kids into the “local school”. Certainly this is the case in Dublin, where we chose to live for family reasons, and where many schools are over-subscribed.

When we decided last spring to move here and started asking primary schools for 3rd and 6th class spots, we realised we were very late to the game. We were really fortunate to finally get into a small Church of Ireland school, which was our choice, and actually our only choice as the Catholic and Educate Together options were completely full.


Right away our little school felt like a welcoming, calm place, and we’ve been so grateful to the teachers (who don’t shout, as they do in Italy) for giving close attention to each pupil. Our girls have done so many more activities and sports than they would have in Italy: throwing footballs, coding on computers, collecting the school recycling, building famine huts from clay, and singing skipping rhymes (in English) with new friends.

While the Uffizi gallery in Florence is no longer an option for a class trip, a day out at the adventure centre in Navan is actually much more fun.

Visiting family in Canada this summer, the cousins were fascinated to hear about Irish school: “You wear a uniform with a tie?”, “Only some schools have boys and girls mixed together?” and, strangest of all, “you choose the school based on its religion?”

For our kids, joining school later in the cycle was a challenge. The novelty of coming from another country lasts no longer than a day and all kids, everywhere, just want to fit in. Existing class alliances and patterns can be hard to break into. The eldest, in 6th class, had to learn to fit in with groups and sub-groups of children who have been together for seven long years. She adapted well and is more than ready for the next chapter, which started for her this week.

As new parents we also had to adapt, push ourselves to make new connections. But this being Ireland, people are approachable and willing to help with dumb questions about where to buy good runners or how to track down the local scouts group (which was full, of course).


Our kids have loved the range of what they do everyday, they find maths to be easier here but English has been a learning curve, as they missed out on a lot of spelling basics abroad. History and geography is all new: the day they had the 32 counties for homework, I needed to step in to help them pronounce Laois and Monaghan, the husband listening in to be on the safe side.

Lucky to already have other languages, the nine-year-old has taken on Irish with relish, but her older sister is still adjusting, having missed out on seven years of what is, honestly, a complicated language. If a child arrives here at age 11, they can be exempt from taking Irish, and she’d be more than happy to skip it.

Helping with homework, I’ve realised that my own cúpla focal is not much more than that, but as a stubborn ex-Irish-abroad, I’d love her to keep at it. I’ve heard a variety of parental attitudes on the subject, mostly about how Irish can be a burden to your Leaving Cert.

Ah yes, the Leaving Cert. Or as I explain it to friends and family: “an overly-important final year exam that is your gateway to getting into college, the results of which are splashed over the national media”. Even at primary level, we’ve felt the big LC looming in our future. Our girls will be doing the new junior cycle which I hope will better balance academic and other work.

Finding a secondary school place for our eldest this year has been a huge frustration. Again, we were late to the game. We applied only one year in advance, and not when she was born: a setup that works okay for families here all their lives, but not for those of us who move or return years later.

Even though I grew up here, we had to dig around to learn about our best options for a school: which ethos, free or fee-paying, mixed or not, location. Suffice to say, after much stress and insecurity, our plans just fell into place only in the last couple of weeks, and our big girl is now starting at a great local school - our first choice a year ago, and the closest thing to a European second-level school.

WhatsApp for parents

Many things are the same in any country, or language - with e-mails home about “Sports day schedule and head lice”, and the parents’ WhatsApp group, though here they don’t go in for as many emojis and devotional pictures as Italian mums do.

Our girls have found it strange to call the teachers Miss or Mrs, and that you’re given a different one every year. I’m still trying to figure out how most parents manage the daily 2.15pm pickup, being lucky as I am to work part-time at home for now. But it’s still a novelty to be able to chat away with their school friends with complete fluency, not being teased for my weird accent.

We’ve now seen our kids jump into a new school in a new country twice. It’s not easy, and my heart goes out to families arriving in Ireland with no English and no connections. A child does well at school when they feel it to be secure, where the days will run as they’re meant to, by the same people, with everything in its place. When moving to a new country, or back to an old one, a good school can be an anchor to help a child, and their whole family, begin to feel at home.

So if you see an unfamiliar family at the school gate, don’t hesitate to stop and say hello. And welcome.

Emma Prunty is writing a series on her experiences of settling back into Dublin after many years abroad and seeing it with fresh eyes, along with her family of foreigners: a Canadian husband and Canadian/Norwegian kids. After living in the UK, US, Canada, Norway and Italy she knows there are pros and cons to every place you move to. She blogs at