Teachers negotiate storms in teacups

A scene from “School Life.”


By Michael Gray

The very notion of a boarding school for pre-teen boys and girls seems entirely outmoded in this day and age, and would seem to belong in the Victorian era, or in the fictional writings of J.K. Rowling. But as the 21st Century advances, one such school is not just surviving, but thriving, in the Irish countryside about 50 miles outside Dublin. Headfort School, Ireland's last remaining primary-level boarding school, provides an unusual and alternative education for children age 7 to 12 who live in dormitory accommodation during term-time, in a converted 18th-Century mansion in the rolling pastures of the Boyne Valley, near Kells, in County Meath.

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This Palladian pile boasts an impressive architectural pedigree - the main building was designed in 1760 by George Semple, contemporary of Jonathan Swift, and architect of St Patrick's Hospital, and of the tower at Swift's cathedral, St Patrick's, in Dublin. The interiors are by renowned Scottish architect Robert Adam, his only surviving project in Ireland.

But there's more to the Headfort school than a Hogwarts ambiance and august bricks and mortar, and its specialized teaching ethos is the subject of a fascinating and heart-warming documentary, "School Life", produced and directed by David Rane and Neasa Ní Chíonáin. The filmmakers were also parents of Headfort pupils when they made the film, giving them invaluable and extensive access to document daily life in the classrooms and dormitories of the school.

Rane and Ní Chíonáin take the observational approach favored by documentary innovators D.A. Pennabaker and the Maysles brothers to tell their story. Their leisurely 12-month production schedule made the staff and pupils of the school so accustomed to the constant presence of cameras and microphones that they give very natural and unselfconscious performances as they reveal the school's method of education. The film moves slowly but surely from a broad-stroke introduction to pupils and staff, to focus more closely on two teachers in particular, and some of their more challenging students. Amanda and John Leyden are 40-year veterans of the school staff, and soon to retire, but their commitment to the youngsters remains as fresh and idealistic as when they started out.

The Leydens are seen negotiating many storms in teacups - a chronically shy girl is guided to to overcome her classroom reticence and blossoms into a prize-winning student at end of term, an earnest aspiring drummer in the school's rock band looks likely to lose her spot at the drumkit to a beautiful but highly-strung new girl from London, and the star of Amanda Leyden's sixth-grade production of Hamlet has a religious scheduling conflict on opening night. Amanda navigates these social challenges while instilling in the children a love of literature and theatre that will last them a lifetime. John gives a hilariously dead-pan performance at Buster Keaton stone-face level in his handling of these mini-crises, gently nurturing young musical talents using his own version of the 'three Rs' - Reading, 'Rithmatic and Rock-and-Roll. And in comedic recurring scenes, the Leydens are shown repeatedly hanging out the window between classes, anxiously discussing the children's wellbeing, while sneaking cigarettes like the rebellious teenagers they know their pupils will soon become.

The progressive teaching at the school gives equal respect to believers of all faiths and none, fosters in the pupils a willingness to take charge of their own education, and vigorously encourages the preposterously young children to debate the major social issues of the day in classroom discussions - often with hilarious results. Much of this progressive thinking at Headfort is driven by the headmaster, himself a past pupil of the school, who had his social conscience honed in opposition to the pervasive politics of intolerance, bigotry and inequality that he encountered during a youthful teaching stint in the U.S. - not in the post-industrial rust-belt red states of the Midwest, but in the hallowed halls of an Upper East Side preparatory school.

"School Life" fared well at Sundance earlier this year, earning a nomination for the Grand Jury prize under its original title "In Loco Parentis". New York audiences can see the film at IFC cinema on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village, where it opens for a limited run on Sept. 8.