School Life

This observational documentary follows a year in the lives of two inspirational teachers in the only primary-age boarding school in Ireland. Headfort, a school not unlike Hogwarts with its 18th century buildings, secret doors and magical woodlands has been home to John and Amanda Leyden for 46 years and a backdrop to their extraordinary careers. For John, rock music is just another subject alongside Maths, English, Scripture and Latin, all of which are taught in a collaborative and often hilarious fashion. Tucked away in a cellar that’s home to the school’s two rock bands, John nurtures a special kind of youth revolution that teaches responsibility and independence in equal measure, wrapped up in heavy metal or pop or, as he tells the kids, they can play whatever they want, as it’s their space. For Amanda the key to connecting with children is ‘the book’ and she uses all means fair to snare the young minds. Her lair, a charming relic from the 1800’s with curved doors and old bookshelves, is packed to the rafters with thousands of titles from every genre and for every taste. The children sit transfixed as she takes them on magical journeys with fantastical characters from tales of all kinds. Past pupils who visit remind her of their shared literary expeditions with a sense of awe – Amanda just nods and smiles. Is the school an anachronism in this global world or a clever remake of the flawed British public school model?

It’s certainly a contradiction: the epitome of establishment, it’s presided over by a social democrat who eschews class in favour of achievement but retains the links that connect Headfort to the levers of power. It’s a skill the headmaster could have learnt from John Leyden who taught him, when he was a pupil at Headfort, just as he produced a slew of other high achievers, now captains of industry, famous artists and academics. For nearly half a century John and Amanda have shaped thousands of minds but now the unthinkable looms: what would retirement mean they muse. Headfort School, spanning the ancient and the ultra modern has been their life and passion and so they’ve challenged the march of time by absorbing the endless supply of young ideas from their wards – who will keep them young if they leave?

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