‘Some of the children stable their own ponies at the school’

My Education Week: Dermot Dix, headmaster of Headfort School, in Kells, Co Meath

Headmaster: Dermot Dix. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Headmaster: Dermot Dix. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Tue, Apr 23, 2013, 05:00

It’s the first day of term. Parents drop their children off after a three-week break. We are a private primary school, with both boarding- and day-school options. There is a Montessori for three- to seven-year-olds; most children then attend our prep school until 12 or 13. Fees range from €7,000 to €9,000 per year (day) and €12,000 to €15,000 (boarding).

The children are excited to be back. We focus on getting them back into the routine. Class runs until 1pm, and then we have lunch. From 2pm until 3.30pm, the kids play games. We play a range of team and individual sports; our graduates have made their mark internationally in hockey, cricket, squash, cricket and horse riding.

A number of new children are arriving today. Their parents are anxious to know how their children are settling in, so I spend much of the day phoning or emailing them.

I’m on evening duty tonight, keeping an eye on the children. The bulk of our boarders are aged between 10 and 13, but some are younger. Most actually clamour to be sent away to board; many of our day pupils try, and love, boarding on a flexi basis. The Irish boarders can go home at weekends, and many do, often taking along friends from among the international pupils, whose parents have sent them mainly to learn English.

Communal life in dorms is great fun for the children, a bit like a sleepover. They play games, read books and watch the occasional film. One of our teachers is a gifted blues pianist, and most evenings he facilitates a rock band for some of the children. On other evenings, there are extra art classes, or carpentry lessons. Some children are kicking a football or playing table tennis; others are simply chatting and playing in the dorms.

More than half of the children take part in horse riding. Some stable their own ponies at the school. All riders muck out the stables. Our riders learn to understand and respect animals, and to be secure and self-sufficient – which in turn improves their confidence. That’s a key aim we have for all Headfort pupils.

As the day draws to a close, we settle the children. They have a snack before bed. They play board games, or read books in the dorm. At 9.30pm, it’s lights out. It’s been a long day, and most of them are exhausted. Matron keeps an eye on them overnight.

When the weather is good, the kids run around outside; some play in the woods. Fort building is popular. They have plenty of space to play and be children, and, of course, we keep an eye on them.

In many ways, we are trying to make an old-fashioned childhood possible. Fundamentally, this is about making sure they have the freedom to be children.

Academics are central. We have small classes – 15 is average. Children have a different teacher for each subject and are encouraged to view each subject from a range of perspectives. We listen to their voice, and what they think, encouraging discussion and debate.

I teach history in the school. I have written critically about British colonial history, and cover it as well as topics in world history and Irish topics.

In the evening my wife, who is a lecturer in anthropology at NUI Maynooth, and I read over some books for tomorrow’s academic reading circle with friends in Dublin.

It is officially my half-day on Thursdays. After a staff meeting to check in with the teachers, I try to get away in the afternoon.

I’m following the debate around postprimary fee-paying schools with interest. Private primary schools receive no State funding. We pay our own teachers and maintain our own buildings.

This school has no interaction with the Department of Education and Skills, although we follow aspects of the Irish primary-school curriculum as well as the British Common Entrance curriculum, which is geared to children up to 13 (our oldest pupils).

We’re not dripping with money here. There are no luxuries, though we have beautiful surroundings.

We have 75 students in the prep school and 25 in the Montessori right now. Fee income is well under €1 million a year, out of which we cover all our own costs. Our teachers earn significantly less than their peers in the State sector. They have great freedom to pursue their interests, but, still, I would like to improve their remuneration.

People assume that any parent who can pay €15,000 a year is fabulously wealthy. Of course, there are some children who come from inherited wealth, as well as children from newer money, but a lot come from families with parents who are working very hard and making enormous sacrifices.

We are also raising money to get a bursary programme off the ground, in order to be able to support children who could not otherwise attend; this initiative has got off to a very good start.

My own political views may surprise. I think that if society truly prioritised the next generation, then every child could benefit from the approach to education that we take at Headfort. The Government should put its resources into education rather than cutting social spending.

At Headfort what matters most is not facilities and money, it is the interaction between teachers and their pupils, across a range of subjects and activities.

Morning assembly in the ballroom is a time for notices on everything from upcoming events to reminders about lateness to the most recent prizes or awards. Today, our geography teacher announces that the Green Schools club will be meeting later on.

As I watch parents drive away with their children in the evening, I reflect on my own time as a pupil here. I loved it, but it’s worth remembering that Headfort in 1971 was still quite a regimented Protestant school largely for the families of landed gentry.

Much has changed. The school is very child-focused, without such a strong emphasis on discipline. Another change is that Headfort has for many years been nondenominational, with children learning about and respecting all religions or none. Moral education is as strong if not stronger than ever: we want out graduates to be thoughtful, responsible, empathetic young people.

Most of my teaching took place out of Ireland. Straight after reading history in Trinity College I went to New York, where I taught in two independent schools, including the Dalton School, where I think I learned a valuable broader perspective.

I live on the grounds with my wife, and my 14-year-old is home from boarding school. Some Saturdays, I’m on duty and I take the children on outings. Today, I’m not. We go to the farmers’ market. We take our dogs on walks. We garden. This is my home.

Later, I read The Irish Times . It has an article on fee-paying schools. I honestly think that all children in Ireland could have the kind of education we provide, if society was prepared to make education a priority.