Inside Ireland’s boarding school for seven-year-olds

Film shines light on trials and joys of pupils and teachers at unique Headfort school

The official trailer for 'In Loco Parentis', a documentary about Ireland's unusual boarding school for ages seven to 13 from film-maker Neasa Ní Chianáin.

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A serious film-maker pops up at your child’s primary boarding school and proposes to spend a year or two being a fly on the wall . Soon, the tiny crew becomes so unobtrusive that no one notices them, even in the dorms.

Inevitably, a few of the children will become the focus. The problem at this point is that no one knows who, not even the film-maker. It could be your little one.

Only when the film is complete do they know who they are: Eliza, the gifted 12-year-old, a picture of silent misery; Ted, the funny, lovable one with severe dyslexia; and Florence, the opaque, sometime child model from London, placed here in the hope that she will be allowed to be a child again.

Would you sign a waiver?

In the question-and-answer session following the premiere of In Loco Parentis at the Amsterdam Film Festival, it was the first question. “And the answer is, we had one parent in the whole school who said, ‘no, you cannot film a [particular] child’,” says the film-maker, Neasa Ní Chianáin, best known for Fairytale of Kathmandu. “All the rest were supportive because they saw how happy their children were and because they loved the school. There were generations of them that had been through that school. And the headmaster, Dermot Dix, was very brave to agree to it when we approached him, but he felt comfortable it would be okay.”

Teacher Mary Kelly with students at Headfort School. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The fact that a primary boarding school – for ages seven to 13 – exists in Ireland may be the second surprise. The notion of sending a primary school age child off to board is not in the culture.

But Headfort is unique, established over 60 years ago as a kind of colonial outpost for the children of a class known not-so-kindly as West Brits, the kind who brought their ponies to boarding school and perpetuated their culture and traditions by bypassing the national education system.

Not West Brit

Dermot Dix, now 54 and a former pupil himself, takes that characterisation on the chin, but says it died out decades ago. “Yes, it would be apt enough to have regarded it as a West Brit establishment in the ’60s and ’70s, but it is very much not a West Brit establishment now. In 1977, my predecessor turned it into a school without any religious affiliation, so it was an early example of non-sectarian education.”

Nor is it a school for the gentry, he insists. Headfort is also a day school, which renders it less aloof from the surrounding culture. “For me, it is very important that the school become less and less elitist.”

Horseriding at Headfort. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

There is clearly a determined, ongoing effort by Dix to raise money for bursaries for less privileged pupils, in a school that is entirely self-funding. Families include “some from quite poor, or immigrant or Traveller backgrounds”, he says.

In any event, it’s possible that the gentry no longer have the wherewithal for the €15,500-a-year boarder fees – which work out at €460 a week, 34 weeks a year, or a bit less for the under-10 boarders. It’s the very existence of the last category that tends to raise native eyebrows.

“Miiiss, Hugh is really really homesick,” pipes up a small voice in the dorm.”Eleven sleeps and you’ll be home before you know it . . .” soothes the comforting mother figure. “But I’m not going to be seeing my mum till half-term . . .” Lights out and the audio picks up the sound of someone crying softly.

Of Headfort’s 110 boarders and day pupils, there are just eight or so boarders under 10, but it has long experience of handling unsettled little ones. An expanded version of the documentary, to be shown as a series on RTÉ later in the year, will show matron expertly handling a child whose “tummy ache” vanishes after a soothing chat. Ní Chianáin says there are children who are “born boarders”. “They go in crying, feeling homesick, and leave feeling schoolsick. It’s like a surrogate family . . .”

She and her English-born husband David Rane approached Headfort with an open-minded curiosity about 21st century boarding schools. Rane himself was sent away as a seven-year-old to an English boarding school and saw his parents only once a year. “He had a terrible time,” she says, “and there were years of therapy afterwards. Obviously his parents – who lived in Nigeria – sent him because they thought it was a great opportunity for him, but he thought he was being punished and being sent away from home”.

Alternative schools

They came upon Headfort while seeking out alternative schools for their two children, specifically their bright seven-year-old son, “who was just switching off, checking out, bored”. They found the template in Dermot Dix’s letter on the school website. “They came to me. They liked my letter, which places the children’s happiness front and centre . . ,” says Dix. “Of course the academic side is important but no child is going to learn unless they are happy.”

Rather than board the children, the family left their home in Donegal and rented in Co Meath to enable them to take an immersive approach to the documentary and allow their children attend the school as day pupils. “We loved the whole shabby chic aspect, the fact that they had so much freedom, that they had access to the woodland, and that they had different teachers for every subject. So if there was a personality clash between child and teacher, that wasn’t going to be a big issue because they would have a chance to meet other personalities and be able to find the person they could relate to. That had been an issue before, so it was important to us.”

She also points out that in modern boarding, most of the Irish children go home at weekends (for some that means just four nights boarding a week) and parents have access at all times.

Students dorm at Headfort School, Kells, Co. Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Headfort is no Hogwarts, but the film lends a magical sense of a giant, extended sleep-over in a ramshackle Georgian mansion, one caught between an ancient tradition and an outsized old home with a beating heart. In the dorms, between the bunk beds, we see a little harpist plucking on strings; a child standing at the bottom of the stairs at bedtime, drawing a bow over a squealing violin; children phoning home in the single, allotted hour, on basic little phones, because no smartphones, cameras or internet are allowed.

Ponies

There is the odd reminder of Headfort’s roots in the chat about a boy bound for Eton, the dazzling cricket whites and the ponies (which Dix insists is “far from a posh pursuit; people from all walks of life are interested in ponies”). But there is a leveller in the scenes of little figures tearing off through the foggy playing fields, building old-fashioned forts and rampaging up trees in the woods, where no one seems too fussed about health and safety.

This is the image that most readily occurs to parents when asked about Headfort. Holly Somerville, mother of the silent Eliza, sees it as place where “they have to think about things. They [the teachers] don’t entertain them in the evenings, they make their own fun. I would collect her on Friday and she wouldn’t have heard any news all week. They were sheltered but in a good way . . . In secondary now, they have smartphones 24 hours a day. Schools don’t know how to police it; technology is a step ahead of them all the time”.

This is the image that Dermot Dix conjures up when asked why any parent would want to shunt a child off to Headfort.

“For the children here, it’s a relatively unrushed day. The boarders are not, by definition, travelling to and from school every day . . . They are also out of doors a lot, playing sports, climbing trees in the fresh air. All at a time when so many people around the country are worrying about children’s fitness levels, increasing obesity, too much time on ‘devices’, etc. I believe we are very good at helping children find their niche, building their confidence and independence . . . I wouldn’t say we want an eight-year-old or 10-year-old to be independent of their parents, but most parents want them to learn how to be independent of mind, to follow their interests, to be exposed to a range of possibilities.”

The approach from parents, he says, is often couched in terms of a child who “is very lacking in confidence and we hear Headfort is very good at bringing them on’. Or they say ‘my child is very sheltered, I don’t think he or she going to be ready for secondary school’. They know we do subject teaching – we might have eight teachers for all different subjects and we also have sports and music. It’s a way of preparing the child for the scary world of secondary school and everything is on a more manageable scale”.

Headmaster Dermot Dix at Headfort School, Kells, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Child-centred

The average class size is 12 to 15 and very child-centred, he says. “When I was teaching in Dalton School in Manhattan – probably the best-known school there – I would have been fired if I’d lectured to children in my history classes; we had to have discussions.”

Ní Chianáin describes how the child-centred teaching – using the Socratic method by which every topic is introduced as a discussion point (subjects here include same-sex marriage, the Salt marches, a discussion about lying) and everyone chips in – transformed her previously bored little boy and “opened up” her children’s worlds.

Dix dismisses the “stereotype” of boarders’ parents being “too busy to be parents”, and talks of a constant stream of parents coming to watch matches and to take children out for a meal on Wednesday evenings. “A lot of them desperately miss their children . . . I get families who are here despite themselves; sometimes it’s the child who has heard from friends how happy they are here and want to come.”

For Holly Somerville, the decision to send Eliza – “a terrible worrier” – to Headfort “was a big step. But I felt it was worth trying because I thought she’d got into a rut where she wasn’t being pushed and I felt we could push her a tiny bit in Headfort, in that go-between year where it’s not so tough”.

Neither of them found it easy to begin with. “I was seeing her at weekends and taking her back on Monday morning and would go up on a Wednesday and take them for supper”.

But she became a convert, impressed with the concept of different teachers for each subject and Dermot Dix’s “particular brilliance at teaching history. It was Eliza’s favourite subject because he talked with such respect for the children”.

Severe dyslexia

For Charlotte and Jimmy Lyons, parents of Ted, the lovably boisterous 11-year-old with severe dyslexia, Headfort provided a kind of haven. Having finished his three years in a Department of Education-run dyslexia school, he was left with nowhere suitable to go for sixth class.

“He was sent back to us with no guidance, like he was ‘cured’,” says Charlotte. “And,” adds a still baffled Jimmy, “we were told we were going to have to fight day and night to get him all the help required to get him through secondary school. You’d think they’d be helping us rather than the other way round . . .”

As well as that, Ted “had also begun to be a bit down in himself. He never really formed any friendships in the dyslexia school because he always felt it was short-term. For us, that year in Headfort was about Ted getting back his confidence”.

This was crucial to the plan to send him to St David’s, a secondary school in Wales where half the children have dyslexia and where the resources are extraordinary.

Headfort prepared him to go. “He loved the dorm life, loved the friends he made. He had the most amazing bunch of buddies and being very much a sportsperson, did all the sports. He loved the teachers. But it was the confidence you noticed . . . that was almost immediate. Next thing he was in a play, doing Hamlet. It was a transformation. He wasn’t being treated as a dyslexic . . . There were French and Spanish [children] there with all the broken English, so he didn’t feel different.”

Headfort School, Kells, Co. Meath.Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

In many ways, at the warm heart of the film and of Headfort, this is the vision acted out each day by a most unlikely pair of ageing eccentrics, John and Amanda Leyden, who at first sight seem like a throwback to the West Brit era. John, the wild-haired Latin, maths and music master; she the English literature specialist with the eyebrow piercing and hearts on her jumper sleeves; both with spiky English accents, a heavy smoking habit, and zero interest in burnishing their public profiles.

When we first meet them at the start of the school year, they’re having a rather mournful chat over breakfast in their grace-and-favour home across the fields, while a massive dog snoozes on the kitchen table.

They puff cigarette smoke out the window while she talks about illness and ageing; about her yearning to own their own home – “I would love to own a house; it would be lovely”; about what would happen if they just upped and left.

Decrepit

He looks very doubtful. “If we don’t come here [to the school], what would we do all day? Just sitting around getting more and more decrepit.”

The children are their lifeblood. As a glowing review from Sundance noted: “Although the Leydens pretend to dread loud, screaming kids, the truth is they cannot go a day without them.” While their stated aim is to make them “balanced, independent, thoughtful”, it’s the way they go about it that creates a lasting print: with hilarious, dry-as-a-bone humour, an ironic detachment and the kind of tough love apt to encourage many a helicopter parent to take a step back. John’s music auditions in the decrepit band room with the Jimi Hendrix mural and School of Rock vibe are in a class of their own.

Coming up to Ted’s religious Confirmation, John asks him if he knows about the pledge, and then proceeds to explain the meaning of a pledge: “When my wife and I went to the altar in 1972, we promised while the money lasted to stay together. In consequence of that pledge, I gave her a ring and she gave me a list for Aldi. ” As for the confirmation pledge, John just suggests that he learn to drink sensibly.

As the film settles on the three children it would follow – Eliza, Ted and Florence – Headfort’s approach becomes almost measurable. When the hitherto silent Eliza comes in and asks : “Can I get a book?” John’s response is both drily humorous and acutely aware: “That was a huge sentence. That will have to do for today.” And Eliza breaks into a smile.

By year end, we see her blossoming, smiling on occasion, sweeping all before her academically. Now happily settled in a day school, “she’s still quiet but getting there and much better than she was”, says her mother. “She’s able to talk to people now and laugh and joke.”

Amanda Leyden’s investment in her charges is palpable. While watching Ted’s dramatic success as the ghost in Hamlet, the joy in her face is remarkable.

As the year draws to a close, we see some poignant leave-takings. In one scene, Ted – given to wandering the grounds, learning about machines – climbs up on a lawnmower to give a proper goodbye hug to the gardener.

Struggle

“You could see the struggle he went through,” says his father now, as Charlotte dabs away tears at the memory. “He’s a caring person, full of empathy . . . But one thing I’m sure of: if he was in a normal school here, he’d end up as the messer, the dosser; he’d be on drink, drugs, everything, looking out the window . . . the class clown.”

As for Florence, we learn that after a rocky start as the drummer in a band – which ended when in a memorable scene, John dismissed her abruptly for casually reappearing after a 10-day absence – and a flurry over a rather disturbing essays, she is now into painting and is staying on for another year.

It’s in the nature of this upbeat documentary that the happy stories win through. But Ní Chianáin is clear that if, say, Eliza, had not blossomed, they would not have used her story. “We have a responsibility as film-makers not to just leave her in that space. Her life would continue and she would change. We had no way of knowing.”

Nor is money a feature in the film – though it matters. Parents on a regular income or none with a child who needs a boost of confidence, freedom to roam, or an academic push, may watch this with some wistfulness.

Eliza Somerville, the gifted 12-year-old, a picture of silent misery. By year end, we see her blossoming, smiling on occasion, sweeping all before her academically
Eliza Somerville, the gifted 12-year-old, a picture of silent misery. By year end, we see her blossoming, smiling on occasion, sweeping all before her academically

Some parents talk quietly about the struggle to gather the fees, about driving bangers and forgoing holidays. The Lyons family are clear that it’s an investment. “We’re spending our money on our kids’ education, that’s what we decided. Ted’s very privileged that we can do it, but it does put a bit of pressure on us,” says Charlotte.

Others like Holly Somerville agree that it is a “privilege” to be able to send their children to a place like Headfort. “Everybody couldn’t do it. I’m happy that we’re able to.”

Back in the empty bandroom, John Leyden is at a keyboard, plinking out “Twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are”. It might be a reflection on children, on himself, or on the remarkable institution that is Headfort, on its ability to endure.

In Loco Parentis will have its Irish premiere as the centrepiece gala of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival on Monday, February 20th, at 8.30pm in the Light House Cinema, and again on Thursday, February 23rd, at 2pm. Tickets can be purchased online.

There will also be four event screenings (including directors’ Q&A) around the country.

Monday, March 6th, Omniplex Rathmines, at 6.30pm

Tuesday, March 7th, Omniplex Dundalk, 6.30pm

Wednesday, March 8th, Omniplex Cork, 6.30pm

Thursday, March 9th, Omniplex Limerick, 6.30pm

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