“School Life” is a captivating documentary about the magical Headfort School

By: Bernadette Fitzgibbons   October 23, 2017


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School Life has brought to life the potential magic of what the early childhood school experience can be, and elevates it to a new level. The real world Headfort School is quite unique. This documentary will make you wonder what you might have achieved if only you had been given the opportunity to experience the seemingly idyllic school life of Headfort, an exclusive boarding school located in the stunning countryside outside of historic Kells, in County Meath, Ireland. Headfort is unusual on many fronts. It is the only boarding school for elementary-age children from 7 to 13, and it exemplifies a long and proud tradition in a country that highly values childhood education. Who would send their 7-year old to a boarding school? You may, once you’ve seen this film. Viewers, parents, and young students alike will be enamored by what school life is at Headfort. Who would have thought that a documentary about a school could capture our imaginations the way this film by Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane has. So much so, that notably, Sundance gave it an approving nod this year.

Much of this documentary unfolds as seen through the eyes of Amanda and John Leyden, veteran teachers who are married both to each other and to Headfort. They have passionately devoted their lives to the school and their young charges. They are not just inspired teachers, but serve the role of surrogate parents providing a level of attention and care that is tailored to individual students’ needs. In loco Parentis (Latin for “In Place of Parents”) was the original eponymous title. As an objective, observational documentary, every scene is candid and the director allows us to experience Headfort life, including its trials and tribulations, in a refreshingly frank, unvarnished manner. On the brink of retirement, we see Amanda and John in the early morning at the breakfast table as they ponder their next steps with the burning question and dilemma of “What will we do all day?” Charming and eccentric, they are at times hilarious to watch. John’s wry and offbeat humor is matched by his wife’s whimsical passion for literature and learning. It’s clear why young students would bond with them as each pupil’s individuality and potential is not only recognized, but celebrated. The Leydens live in the former butler’s house in the grounds of Headfort – once the estate of Lord and Lady Headfort. The imposing Georgian mansion has been an exclusive boarding school since 1949. We see Amanda and John as they drive their spectacular morning commute the few minutes through the lush green Irish landscape in the private grounds of Headfort estate.

The setting and the school itself have the aura of grandeur and prestige. Originally founded as an exclusive post-World War II school for children of the privileged, Headfort retains elements of its heritage. Students strive for, and attain, entrance to some of the most exclusive secondary schools, including Eton and Harrow in the U.K. and Clongowes Wood in Ireland. The headmaster, Dermot Dix, is an erudite former graduate who was himself tutored by John and Amanda. We see the Leyden’s’ legacy, as they share thoughts on education, their students and life with Dermot in a staff meeting which is akin to an intimate family chat that we are invited to observe.

Ni Chianain’s directorial skill is evidenced by her unobtrusive style. She and Rane immersed themselves in the school over a period of three years to the point where the cameras become part of the background even in the dorms at night. The students go about their routines seemingly unperturbed by the ongoing filming. Here we see the director’s ability to portray the Headfort experience also through the eyes of the students themselves. From tearful scenes of homesickness and crying at night in the dorms, to running wild, climbing trees, horse riding, and seeking adventures in the grounds during the day, as all children should, the film portrays the wealth of experience that only a place like Headfort can provide.

There is a triumphant sense of empowerment bestowed to Headfort students, where teaching embraces the Socratic method of education and every topic is open for discussion. Children are encouraged to question and challenge and become fully engaged. We see how young students flourish when given free rein to be happy children first. Everything else then falls into place. As Dermot points out on the first day of term:

If you want to change the world, you start doing it yourself. Your own education is up to you as much as your teachers. It’s up to you to try to figure out what you think you could learn. You’re all already in charge of your own lives”.

Inspiring on many levels, this documentary will make you want to send your children to Headfort and wish you had gone there yourself. And, for 99 minutes, you’ll feel as if you did.

School Life is currently playing select theaters.

For more info, visit the film’s official Facebook page at, https://www.facebook.com/SchoolLifeDoc/

Interview by Bernadette Fitzgibbons – Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bernadette.fitzgibbons

Edited by: Jody Taylor – https://twitter.com/RealJodyTaylor

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