After Madigan: Rethinking Special Education — Cut Red Tape, not Ribbons

Simon Lewis
3 min readMar 23, 2024
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Josepha Madigan’s historic appointment as Ireland’s first Minister for Special Education in 2020 signified a commitment to ensuring children with additional needs were at the heart of government policy. After a decade of cuts to services and supports, the portfolio came with a sizeable budget, and the hope was that this ministry could deliver a cohesive set of services for children with additional needs in schools. Unfortunately, she kowtowed to populist pressure and left the portfolio a bureaucratic mess.

The COVID-19 pandemic was the first obstacle Madigan had to navigate, one where she struggled to find her feet, in her own words, “mis-speaking” on a number of occasions. Perhaps to assert herself to be “on the side” of children with additional needs, she and her senior colleague Minister Norma Foley brought divisions between schools, advocacy groups and parents. Relationships remain fractious, most recently in a conflict over Special Education Teaching (SET) Allocations.

Rather than restoring an education system that, during he recession, had taken so much from those with the most needs, preference was given to more populist schemes such as free hot lunches, free school books, free summer programmes and free school buses. Madigan described herself as being “relentless” as she opened as many special classes for autism without thinking about whether these classes were the correct solution.

As Joanne Banks and Michael Shevlin of Trinity College noted in 2022, “there has been rapid expansion of the special class model, but only limited investigation of its efficacy.” Some of this, they state, was influenced by parents attracting political attention. Madigan again used division between schools, parents and advocacy groups to push them through. Despite calls from education groups to ensure these classes came with adequate training programmes, wraparound local therapy supports, and appropriate accommodation to be in place, none were prioritised. In fact, special classes no longer serve the aims set out when the scheme was first introduced.

While some might argue that opening special classes for autism was necessary, and many might argue they work well, simply putting six children in a classroom with a teacher and two special needs assistants is a model that only works thanks to a lot of goodwill and guesswork. It works when it works. When a child requires specialist interventions, such as occupational therapy, the model can disintegrate quickly. There’s only so much a light therapy room can do.

Rather than making headline-grabbing decisions, Madigan would have done better to focus on quieter solutions. Children are sitting on waiting lists for interventions like speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and other therapies for years. Children need more learning support. They also need emotional, behavioural, psychological and mental health interventions.

Madigan’s ministry will now be absorbed once again into the main education portfolio and it is possible we might not see a special education minister in future cabinets. However, if we do, we need to learn from the mistakes that have been made.

The frontloading models of SET and Special Needs Assistant Allocations have been a failure and we need to move to systems where children’s needs can be followed from birth through school. Schools should never be asked to prioritise their support to the highest levels of needs. We also need to stop the spiralling increased bureaucracy. For example, in 2003, the National Council for Special Education (NCSE) had 15 office staff and 72 people working directly with schools. By 2019, there were 150 office staff and 66 people working directly with schools. We need to cut red tape, not ribbons.

However, most importantly we need a plan. The first step is to bring parents, advocacy groups and schools back together. We need to be able to offer children what they need, when they need it. While it sounds simple, it’s going to require a lot of hard work. It might not make any headlines but it will make all the difference to all of our children.



Simon Lewis

Primary school principal, podcaster and poet. 👨🏼‍🏫 Writes about the Irish primary education system. Tweets from @simonmlewis