When Neasa and David first approached me with the notion of making a film about Headfort School, telling me that they had been taken by the way we described the school on our website – that they liked my emphasis on the importance of children’s happiness – I was gratified that film-makers could be so interested in the school. True, I think it is a special place with special people; but I had not realised that what we do contained a story with reach.
Luckily, I didn’t take long before presenting the notion to the school’s board and they quickly decided to agree. If we had dwelled on doubts, fears and uncertainties we would probably have run a mile.
I was confident in what Headfort is all about, and also keen to spread the word about the school. I also had an intuitive sense that any promotional film we might commission would be of no interest to anybody. That was what was appealing about Neasa and David’s project: it would be their portrait of the school, not mine; it would be a true observational documentary, not an advertisement.
Would I have made the same film? Almost certainly not. I would most likely have a long list of themes, people, activities and areas of school life that I would have wanted to include (more classroom action, for example). That film, however, would probably be unwatchable. My putative version might come out ahead in the reality stakes; but Neasa and David’s film goes beyond reality and manages to capture some profound truths about the school.
‘Headfort is a special place with special people; but I had not realised that what we do contained a story with reach.’
School Life shows how Headfort cherishes and, indeed, delights in children of varying abilities, interests and personalities. The film shows that we take our role as being ‘in loco parentis’ very seriously. The school is delighted to be in a relationship with our pupils’ parents in their upbringing; we have not usurped the parental role – but we know we play a crucial role.
Headfort’s pupils spend much more of their time at school than do most schools’ pupils. Our older day pupils stay in school until 6.00pm and often later. Sometimes parents have to cajole their children into their cars at the end of the day. Most of our Irish boarders go home to their families for most weekends. Thus, boarding life feels like a series of sleepovers as much as anything else.
One of the lovely things about life at Headfort – and this is true for the day pupils almost as much as for the boarders – is that the children are allowed a (relatively) unrushed childhood. The rhythm of our day is different from that of most schools: we can allow ourselves to have a few lessons, then take a break and get outside or go to the art room or play some music. I remember thinking, many years ago in New York as I made my way to work, that children must think adults are terribly impatient – as I walked past apartment building after apartment building, I heard a stream of parents urging children to “hurry up, come on, we’re late,” or words to that effect. Well, of course we have our timetable at Headfort; but there is so much more time for everything.
Some of our boarders – those from outside Ireland – don’t, of course, go home too often at the weekends. Their rhythm is different. Initially for many of them, the reality of life away from their parents – even if they had heard a lot about Headfort and were enthusiastic to join us – comes as a shock to the system. But amazingly quickly the vast majority learn how much there is for them at Headfort.
For many of Headfort’s children there are some tears of homesickness at the start of their stint; there are always tears at the end as they prepare to say their goodbyes. School Life shows why.