Obituary: Tom Kellaghan

Recognised in Ireland and internationally as a leading educational researcher

Tom Kellaghan: born May 10, 1933; died March 10, 2017

Tom Kellaghan: born May 10, 1933; died March 10, 2017


Tom Kellaghan, who has died aged 83, was a pioneer of quantitative research into education. His mission was simple, though the jargon can be daunting. He saw that gaps occur between educational policy and the daily reality of life of the classroom. His mission was to assess the results of programmes of learning to find out what was working and why. Comparatively few of those who benefited from Kellaghan’s efforts to improve the way they learned will have heard of him, yet all those who attended Irish schools – and many overseas ones too – profited from his lifelong work in some way.

The cornerstone of his working life was the Educational Research Centre (ERC), of which he became founding director in 1966, and which he continued to lead until 2009, only standing down when he was 75. The ERC began life in St Patrick’s teacher training college in Drumcondra, Dublin, and became a statutory body in 2015. The foresight of the education authorities in focusing on assessment as early as the 1960s was noted in the first paragraph of Prof John Coolahan’s citation for Kellaghan’s honorary doctorate. Kellaghan ­– who preferred to operate “below the radar” – was quietly gratified by NUI’s recognition in 2004 of the importance of the work.

Kellaghan is also recognised internationally as a leading educational researcher. He wrote or edited more than 40 books, approximately 150 journal articles and at least 50 formal research reports. His publications covered assessment, evaluation and educational disadvantage, also school effectiveness, public opinions about education, gender inequalities in the teaching profession and special educational needs.

He acted as consultant to many key organisations including the in Ireland the Department of Education, and the NESC, and further afield the World Bank, the OECD, Unesco. and the Council of Europe. He had friends and colleagues in many overseas universities, Boston College in particular. Throughout his life, he gave much time to helping develop educational systems in developing countries. He worked in Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. He also engaged in educational research and development work in Asian countries – Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, as well as the Philippines. In South America, he assisted in the educational development of Colombia and Uruguay. “Tom Kellaghan’s work has been of direct value to educational policies in countries on four of the five continents,” his honorary doctorate citation noted.

He was born in Mullingar, to Peter and Alice Kellaghan (née Murphy). His father was a public servant and his work took the family to live in Tralee where the boy became a lifelong supporter of the Kerry Gaelic football team. After school, Kellaghan joined the Society of African Missions, but left before ordination. He went to Queen’s University in Belfast to study psychology and spent two years at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He returned to Belfast as lecturer in psychology from 1962 to 1965.

“Those who worked or studied with Tom will remember him as a mentor and (often critical) friend who was willing to offer advice and support, and was open to new ideas,” said his successor as ERC director, Dr Peter Archer. In retirement, he continued to write and edit extensively, and recently completed a five-volume series about national assessments. He edited the Irish Journal of Education from 1967 to 2015.

His overseas consultancy work continued almost to the end. His last trip – a lengthy one to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean – took place just 18 months before he died. Predeceased by his siblings Peter, Maura (Jerrard) and Ena, he is survived by his nephews and nieces Colm, Moninne, Finian and Patricia.