Cork man John Kearney is striving for the best in special education

John Bohane speaks with Cork man John Kearney, who was recently appointed as the new CEO of the National Council for Special Education, about his ambitions for the role. 
Cork man John Kearney is striving for the best in special education

Cork man John Kearney was recently appointed the new CEO of the National Council for Special Education. Photo: Adrian Donohoe.

CORK man John Kearney was recently appointed as the new Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the National Council for Special Education (NCSE).

Mr Kearney has a passion for special education, having previously progressed the delivery of contemporary special education facilities and the expansion of further education and training progression routes for students with special educational needs as chief executive of the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board (CMETB).

The new CEO started his role in March, and he is thrilled with his recent appointment in the NCSE.

“I am delighted with the appointment. I have been in education quite a long time now at this stage. I started off teaching in St Colman’s College in Fermoy for about 10 to 12 years. I was principal of a secondary school in Cavan after that. In more recent times I was chief executive of the education and training board before moving on to this most recent appointment with the NCSE,” he said.

The Watergrasshill native said his various educational roles have ensured he has seen the importance of “catering properly” for students in special education.

“I have seen it on the ground in terms of the importance of catering properly for students in special education and working in close partnership with their parents in terms of offering every available support to them in terms of their education pathway.

“I have seen it then as chief executive in terms of buildings, the proper buildings and infrastructure that is required to bring in modern state-of-the-art facilities to provide the very best of support to young students,” Mr Kearney said.


The former UCC student has good memories of growing up in Cork where he enjoyed lots of success as a renowned athlete.

“I was very involved in sport and athletics. I ran for East Cork, Cork, and internationally. I am very proud of my Cork roots. I come home to Cork very often to see my family. I am still an avid GAA supporter and still a bit chastened after the recent hurling defeats.”

The formation of special classes in Cork was a priority in recent times said the new CEO.

The Minister for Education, Norma Foley TD, and Minister of State with responsibility for Special Education and Inclusion Josepha Madigan TD recently announced a significant expansion of special school provision in Cork.

Additional special school places will be provided at St Gabriel’s Special School, Bishopstown, in Carrigaline Community Special School, and St Killian’s Special School, Mayfield, while a new special school will be established during the 2022/23 school year in Rochestown.

Mr Kearney said a lot of the deficit in special education in Cork has been addressed in recent times.

“At the moment there are over 350 special classes in Cork city and county. A lot of the deficit in Cork has been addressed in recent times in terms of putting in adequate supports,” he added.


He said that providing special school places and opening new special schools is just the beginning.

“Opening the classes is the first hurdle. It is then about enhancing the quality of teaching and learning for [the students in] special education. Albeit they are within a special class placement, but they still have as much access as possible to the mainstream curriculum, so they are getting the very best in terms of their own attainment and progression route through the education system.

“Right across the board the most important thing for any student at any level is that they are happy and secure, particularly when they can attend school with their own brother and sister. They are in their own local environment and all the local children are attending which is the first hurdle.”

He said that the achievements of children in special education and the achievements of the teaching profession in assisting them “have been spectacular” in terms of what children with special education needs can achieve.

The new CEO said special education has completely transformed in recent years.

“I remember 20 to 25 years ago there were very few diagnoses ... so students were being taught and included in classrooms but in terms of the needs requirements it was at a very low base, if indeed any base at all. Now it is completely changed and completely transformed with teacher induction programmes and teacher training colleges. The quality of professionalism and support and care for students with special education has spectacularly grown.

“Over €2 billion [has been] invested in special education. That is 25% of the exchequer investment in terms of education going to special education. It should be an ambition of each school, whether primary or post-primary, to cater for children with special education in their locality. That is the ultimate ambition of the Government and the NCSE. Both of us are working progressively with a view to deliver on that aim,” he added.

“There is of course immense work still to be done,” he said in relation to striving to provide the best facilities, best teaching practice, and access for students in special education.

“I am working with all the concerned partners. I am working in a strategic sense with the Department that the investment is spread right throughout the country and then with the schooling communities offering them the best ongoing support in terms of enhancing teaching and learning standards for children with special education [needs]. As we get a better understanding of special education, the teaching approaches must be reflected to accommodate that to offer even greater assistance to children with special education needs.”

The Cork man, who now lives in Virginia, Co Cavan, said he is very enthusiastic about a new project which is in a pilot stage in two counties at present.

“There is a particular initiative called the School Inclusion Model and that will bring the opportunities of speech and language therapists and occupational therapists to work with schools. It is at the pilot stage in Dublin South and Kildare now, but our ambition would be to spread that out for the full benefit of all. One of the most pressing needs is the availability of those therapy supports for children and their families with particular needs. The aim is to deliver this project over the next 10 years.”


Mr Kearney said a big ambition of his is to ensure everyone in education is offered the highest standards in teaching and learning so all students can maximise their potential.

He said that his ambition for children with special educational needs is “that ultimately there is a full realisation that they can attend their local primary and secondary school and that they are offered the highest standards in teaching and learning which will enable them to maximise their potential”.

The new CEO of the NCSE said it is an honour to be working in a sector that offers so much potential to people.

“I have been involved in all facets of education all my life. Education is the real contributor in terms of making a real active difference and particularly for children and parents with special education. Education is the real intervention here. It makes a massive difference to people’s lives. It is a privilege and an honour to be working in a domain that offers so much potential to people.”

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