The 50 most influential people in education — where are they now? (Part 2/5)

Simon Lewis
10 min readOct 13

In our first article, I covered the top ten people that made the list, most of which were more interested in the economy than education so let’s see how the next ten people fare out in terms of influence in education.

11. John Walshe

In 2011, John Walshe, after about 40 years as an education journalist, jumped at the chance of becoming an advisor to Ruairi Quinn, the then education minister. According to his book, “An Education.” he met Quinn in Buswell’s and said “I want you to be my special adviser, the salary is €80,000 and I’d like you to start immediately.” According to the Irish Times article, it launched him as Quinn’s right-hand-man and possibly to second most important person in education. After Quinn resigned in 2014, Walshe went back to the Irish Independent. He now seems to be still writing but mainly in the university sector.

Would he make the list today?

I don’t think he would as he doesn’t appear to be writing regularly in the media and he certainly isn’t advising any ministers. He fully deserved his place on the list in 2011 but as quickly as Quinn’s star shone, Walshe’s faded along with him.

12. The Parents of Special Needs Children

An entire article could be written about Special Education but it’s worth quoting the first paragraph of the Irish Times article written 12 years ago.

The requirements of special-needs children were recognised in Irish education only when some brave parents sought to assert their rights in court. The battle for those rights continues. At present parents are battling to retain special-needs assistants in schools.

Unfortunately, things have gone from bad to worse as the supports available for children with additional needs have been cut by stealth every single year. 2016 was probably the cruelest of years for children with additional needs when the NCSE, who are responsible for allocating children with additional needs with supports, changed a number of rules in terms of gaining supports and things have never been the same since.

The article said that politicians “worry that cuts in this very sensitive area will see them cast as cruel and heartless” but it really hasn’t stopped them. Even creating a Minister for Special Education portfolio served only to create a divide and conquer situation where nobody is claiming real responsibility for special education anymore.

Last year, a court case forced the NCSE to honour Assessment of Need referrals. Rather than doing that, the NCSE lumped it over the schools who have no expertise in assessments. Parents are again having to go to court to stop the madness.

Would they make the list now?

Absolutely. It’s a disgrace that they should be in a list like this. Where I possibly can, I will defend educators within a very broken education system but schools had an opportunity last year to put a stop to the AON debacle, and chose not to. All children should simply get the supports they require and parents can’t rely on anyone anymore, except themselves. I hope they succeed.

13. Anne Looney

At the time of this list, Anne Looney was the Chief executive of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA. At that time, the big story of the day was Junior Cert Reform, something that I believe is still on the agenda today. I tend to avoid second level issues. I’m not sure if she expected to be thrown in head first into some primary reforms with the Literacy and Numeracy strategy, which was the launchpad of the new curriculum that is about to be unleashed upon us in 2026.

The first of these was the Primary Language Curriculum, which was beset with huge issues, including several members of the team walking out during its production. As teachers, we know only too well the disaster of the rollout of the Primary Language Curriculum with most of us resigning to the fact that it never will get off the ground.

In 2017, Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Education and Skills his plans to ensure an investigation takes place into bullying concerns raised by current and former staff members of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

These concerns would have taken place during Looney’s tenure though there is absolutely no evidence to suggest Looney played any part in this episode. In fact, Looney moved on from the NCCA before these issues came to light and eventually became the Executive Dean of Education in DCU in 2016.

I’ve met Anne on a number of occasions and I like her. She has her finger on the pulse on most things. I imagine the only area where we would disagree is patronage as she is the chairperson of a Catholic school, which requires one to state they are happy to uphold the ethos. She is also happy to continue the bizarre entry system into DCU for teacher training where members of reformed Christian faiths can get into the college with lower points in their Leaving Certificate than any other belief system.

However, it can’t be denied that Looney could claim to be the most influential person in education of this generation. She has been at the forefront of educational leadership since 2001 and there are not too many people who can say that.

Would she make the list today?

Without a doubt, yes. Looney is the Dean of Education in the biggest (face-to-face) initial teacher training school in the country. I imagine if DCU jumped, the other training colleges would follow. However, her influence stretches back over 20 years and shows no signs of abating.

14. John Coolahan

John Coolahan is the first person on this list that is no longer with us. Coolahan died in 2018 and his obituary in the Irish Times recognised him as one of the most influential figures in Irish education. In 2011, Coolahan was hand-picked by Ruairi Quinn to chair the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, the entity that was charged in diversifying the primary education system away from the Catholic Church, which controlled over 90% of primary schools at the time. Initially, Quinn and Coolahan (and the Catholic Church itself) were looking at a figure of 50% divestment. This was quickly reduced before the Forum got started.

Unfortunately, Coolahan’s project never got off the ground. Fewer than 10 schools had divested by the time he passed away. In 2015, he said he was disappointed by the lack of progress. I imagine he would be even more disappointed with the current targets and messing around.

I have been critical of Coolahan’s plan and I recorded a special set of podcast episodes on the 10 year anniversary of the Forum here:

Things haven’t gotten any better and I might argue now that they may even be worse, thanks in part to a rising conservatism fuelled by nonsensical fear-mongering about multidenominational schools, but also NIMBYism, which we saw in Malahide and Raheny most recently.

The Programme for Government has targeted only 400 multidenominational schools by 2030 and has now prioritised Community National Schools over other models. Neither of these were in Coolahan’s plans and I’d like to think he would be critical of them. I envisage that one of the biggest stumbling blocks of reaching that conservative figure is that many schools will not want to divest to the Community National School model. Rightly or wrongly, this model is rumoured to be over-bureaucratic and the benefits of a more equality-based model are outweighed by the Kafkaesque expectations of the ETBI.

Sadly, Coolahan is no longer with us. His wisdom would be very welcome today.

Would he make the list today?

If he were alive, I’d like to think he would. The Forum of Patronage and Pluralism needs an overhaul and I think he would have been brave enough and respected enough to have made the necessary changes. Given that there hasn’t been an Education Minister like Ruairi Quinn, it’s difficult to know how high the issue is on the agenda of Ministers since then. Given that the Forum has not been resurrected in many years suggests it’s unlikely to be a priority.

15. Tom Boland and John Hennessy

Tom Boland was the Chief executive of the Higher Education Authority and John Hennessy was its chairperson in 2011. Both men had backgrounds in industry and the Irish Times lauded them as bringing together academia and the world of industry. Given both these facts, I don’t have much to add as my articles focus on primary education.

Would they make the list today?

I googled both men and Tom Boland appears to be an educational consultant, which is where people in lofty positions often end up. I can’t find anything on the Internet about John Hennessy after 2017 when he was still chairperson of the HEA. Either way, they wouldn’t make my top 50 list but for all I know their influence may still be felt in 3rd level.

16. Martin Hanevy

“Who?” you might ask. In 2011, Hanevy was being lauded as potentially being Brigid McManus’ successor as the secretary general of the Department of Education. As many of us know, that didn’t happen, and instead Seán Ó Foghlu took the reins instead. In 2011, Hanevy, assistant secretary general of the Department of Education, was credited by the Irish Times with authoring “one of the most outstanding and radical documents” prepared by the department, which was all about school admissions. This was long before the baptism barrier was christened. At the time, it was more to do with schools having waiting lists and allowing boys go to the same schools as their fathers over families that didn’t have such privilege.

Hanevy seemed to have a reputation for speaking his mind and not being a “yes man” to the Minister according to the article. Looking at his time in office, he wasn’t afraid to say unpopular things. After the moratorium on posts of responsibility, he said at an NAPD conference that he couldn’t envisage a time where half the staff in a schools had posts. He called on teachers’ performance to be ‘assessed every three years. And, yes, later he was involved in outlining Richard Bruton’s four options for how schools could discriminate on access, which eventually ended up with minority faiths being allowed to do so, which remains the case today.

Would he make the list today?

Although Hanevy passed away earlier this year, his legacy remains. I do wonder what the education world would have looked like had he been the secretary general instead of Seán Ó Foghlu. Sadly, school admissions remain a mess. I wonder what he really thought of Bruton’s decision in the end, despite the majority of people wishing that no school could discriminate.

17. Chuck Feeney

As I was about to start this profile, the news came in about Chuck Feeney’s death on social media. I can safely say that if it weren’t for Chuck Feeney, I probably couldn’t have stayed in teaching and my son would almost certainly be sitting at the back of a classroom every day of the week. Feeney was a philanthropist who donated a lot of money to Irish education, $1 million went to Educate Together, which allowed them to exist as an organisation for a number of years. I owe my career to him.

Outside of my life, Feeney donated over $1 billion into higher education and much of that is evidenced in some of the buildings around the universities in Ireland.

Would he make the list today?

His donations to Educate Together dried up a number of years ago so his efforts at primary level are no longer influencing the sector. With that in mind, unfortunately, he wouldn’t make the list today.

18. Áine Hyland

Áine Hyland was big news in 2011 for her work in higher education. However, for me, the name Áine Hyland, will always be associated with Educate Together and multidenominational education. As most people know, Hyland was one of the founders of what became Educate Together along with Bill Hyland, then the chief statistician in the Department of Education, and Micheal and Pat Johnston and Desmond Green.

Hyland recently wrote: “A Brave New Vision for Education in Ireland: The Dalkey School Project 1974–1984” in 2021 with Desmond Green and she remains a key voice in education.

Would she make the list today?

I think so. Hyland is still very much a key voice in education and I hope she will continue to be a voice that challenges the status quo.

19. Seán Ó’Foghlu

Already mentioned a couple of times in the list so far, Ó’Foghlu took over the reins from Brigid MacManus as the secretary general of the Department of Education. According to the Irish Times he was much admired by Ruairi Quinn and highly tipped for the position. At the time he was credited with depoliticising the unit in charge of school buildings and imposing a new policy that meant politicians wouldn’t meet with school delegations. This stopped schools from being influenced by politicians.

Ó’Foghlu continued his work as the secretary general of the Department of Education and was involved in all sorts of big decisions from managing the victims of church abuse in schools to trying to end paper payslips for teachers — quite the eclectic role. He left the position in 2021 to take up a position in the University of Maynooth but wasn’t without controversy, as it was claimed that the role was specifically created for him to go on secondment, while still being paid his salary of €215,998.

Would he make the list today?

While he is still in the University of Maynooth, it’s likely he is influential at 3rd level. However, at primary level he would not make the list today.

20. Hugh Brady

Hugh Brady was the president of UCD in 2011 and the Irish Times started off by saying had the list been made 5 years previously, he would have been in the top 5. Brady finished his position in 2013 moving on to other universities. He is currently the President of Imperial College London.

Would he make the list today?

He wouldn’t have made a top 50 primary education list in 2011 and that hasn’t changed here.

That’s the list from number 11–20. You can read the top ten here.

Simon Lewis

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