This Life: Old school, new outlook
09:25, 22 December 2013 by Catherine Murphy
The moment you enter Headfort, you’re struck by the Harry Potter comparisons. From dark, brooding corridors to no-frill dorms and a secret door in the headmaster’s study, it’s pure Hogwarts. It’s a place that any child or adult would enjoy exploring.
Set in a 1,000-acre estate outside Kells in Co Meath, the school is Ireland’s only remaining fee-paying boarding school for primary-level children. The building itself, a Georgian mansion designed by George Semple in the 1700s, is unique in that it houses Ireland’s last remaining example of 18th century Scottish architect Robert Adam’s work.
But beyond the severe grey exterior and those first fleeting impressions, Headfort greets you with two intertwined stories: that of the school’s history and that of headmaster Dermot Dix.
The 51-year-old Dix attended Headfort as a boy and got the teaching bug as a young student teacher there. He subsequently spent 11 years teaching history at the well-known Dalton private school in New York before returning in 2003 for the job of Headfort headmaster.
The school has played a large part in his life and he clearly loves the bones of the place. The youngest in a family of four, he grew up in Malahide and attended Headfort on the recommendation of his older brother, Peter.
”I was a suburban kid living in a comfortable four-bedroom house,” he says. ”I was known as the terror’ at home because I was spoiled and bold. Peter, who was ten years older than me and already studying at St Columba’s, saw boys coming through from Headfort and suggested to my father that he send me here. I remember my first visit to the school, not wanting to go home. I loved it.”
Dermot’s son Conall, aged 14, also attended Headfort before following in his father’s footsteps to St Columba’s college. Dermot and his wife Chandana Mathur, head of anthropology at NUI Maynooth, live in a house on the Headfort estate, a two-minute walk from the school and a far cry from their old Manhattan apartment.
”Headfort is based on the prep school system, but things are more relaxed now than when I was a pupil here,” says Dermot Dix. ”In those days you had to play rugby, now there’s a range of sports to choose from – hockey, horse-riding, cricket. Irish wasn’t taught here when I was a pupil, now pupils can choose between Latin and Irish.
”The surroundings are very beautiful and children are given the chance to explore them, but what’s most important is what goes on in the classroom. Our teaching methods are progressive and I’m passionate about the way we teach here. At the Dalton in New York, I would have been fired if my classes had been lecture-only; debate was an absolute must and I encourage that here too.”
Some things stay the same, he says. Children must call their teachers sir’ or miss’ and stand up when their headmaster enters the room. Rather charmingly, half the children forget to stand when he enters their classrooms during a whistlestop tour of the school.
After school hours, children still horse around in their dorms and at the weekend, the 20 or so international pupils are taken out for activities and day tours. Some teachers also live on the estate and share weekend duties.
Headfort is a nondenominational, co-ed school that takes day pupils from the age of seven and boarders from the age of ten. Two thirds of all pupils are boarders, the ratio of boys to girls is 60-40, and 20 per cent of the pupils are international.
From fourth class, pupils have a different teacher for each subject. Practical science is still on the curriculum and class sizes average between 12 and 15. Parents can pay an additional fee to stable their child’s pony on the estate and children go horse-riding once a week.
The school’s history echoes that well-known story of the decline of the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. It first opened in 1949, when the fifth Marchioness of Headfort realised that her family’s fortunes could no longer sustain the great house. Two centuries earlier, the estate had been gifted to Thomas Taylor, thereafter called the first Marquis of Headfort, in return for supporting the passing of the Act of Union. During the estate’s heyday, 45 servants and 20 gardeners were employed there.
In the 1970s, the estate was sold to Canadian multimillionaire Bill Kruger and when he died in the 1990s, it was carved up among developers, farmers and the school, which is now controlled by a trust and retains 40 acres of land on the estate.
The paradox is that while the school continues to breathe life into the great house, and pupils enjoy beautiful surroundings, it’s like an ageing beauty queen on her uppers â€“ still quite beautiful, but chronically short of cash. ”Compared to other fee-paying schools, we’re poor,” Dix says.
Fees at the school range from around €8,000 a year for day pupils over the age of seven to €16,000 a year for boarders over the age of ten. But unlike Ireland’s secondary level private schools, Headfort receives no state funding and relies on fees, fundraising and the allure of Robert Adam’s grand designs to attract private functions.
Inevitably Headfort has been hit by the downturn, with pupil numbers falling from 90 to 60, before rising back up to 75.
”We’re starting to see a bounce back now,” Dix says. ”We’ll never be a large school with hundreds of pupils. We’re a minority because there has never really been a tradition in Ireland of sending primary age children to boarding school, but we could cater for 125 or more pupils. Headfort relies on boarding pupils because we don’t have a big enough catchment area for day students.
”We have survived by being very careful with our money. For the first few years of the downturn, we were protected. We started to feel the effects in 2010 and 2011, and could see it coming. We saved money through pay cuts and through not replacing teachers that left. Everyone is doing more work for less money, but student fees haven’t increased.”
Where once there were ten private primary schools in Ireland – five of them south of the border – Headfort is now the last prep school standing, with its primary level rivals falling away to differing extents over the years. Castle Park in Dalkey gave up on boarders back in 1998, but continues to educate fee-paying day students. Aravon in Bray closed down last summer, leaving Headfort to struggle on in a lonely niche.
Dix says he is ambivalent about the issue of state funding for private schools in Ireland. ”On the one hand, I think that if we got state funding, great, we could reduce fees and move away from the elitism associated with private schools. One thing I certainly don’t want the school to be is elitist and I think private schools in general have got much better at examining themselves and moving away from the downright snobbery of previous times,” he says.
”On the other hand, I don’t entirely see that the state should be responsible for funding private schools if the parents sending their children there are in a position to be able to afford fees. In the past, I think there has been a stereotype of Headfort as a school for the children of gentry and big farmers. Today we have an eclectic group of families sending their children here.
”Yes, there are the barristers and doctors, but we also have families from modest backgrounds, getting help from grandparents or cutting out holidays and things in their own lives to send their children here. There are a surprising number about whom you might ask: how are they managing it?’
”The answer is that they’re scraping the money together to give their children this education.”
The school provides bursaries for three children each year.
Dix could be described as Headfort’s second paradox. Headmaster, head of history and head of hockey, he doesn’t hide the fact that his personal politics are radical left-wing, a fact that might be considered unusual given his position at the helm of a school that embodies the last vestiges of Protestant ascendancy privilege and that annually feeds those bastions of the status quo: Ireland and Britain’s top private schools.
He has written trenchantly critical essays on the British empire and has been known to show pupils The Wind That Shakes the Barley as part of history lessons.
While some Headfort pupils go on to state-run secondary schools, most consistently go on to private schools such as Clongowes Wood, Alexandra College and St Columba’s in Ireland, along with Ampleforth, Eton and Cheltenham Ladies school in Britain.
Well-known past pupils at Headfort include jockey Charlie Swan, RTE commentator Robert Hall, chef Domini Kemp, Jasmine Guinness and former DCU president Ferdinand von Prondzynski.
Dix argues that holding left-wing political views and favouring private education aren’t mutually exclusive. ”I’m a bit like Headfort myself; I look traditional but I’m not really,” he says.
”What’s important about our school is that it gives children the building blocks for success but also sends them out with a social ethic and with big hearts. Some of our pupils go on to have very successful lives, some go on to have ordinary, modestly successful lives. We’re preparing children for successful, happy lives and if they do achieve great success, I don’t believe it’s because they’re part of the old boys’ network.”