Endearing Irish documentary School Life screens in Cairo

Soha Elsirgany , Friday 17 Nov 2017

The award-winning film explores life for teachers and pupils at a boarding school for 7 to 12-year-olds in Ireland

School life
School Life documentary (Photo: Still from the film)

School Life, an intimate and up-close study of an Irish boarding school, was among the documentaries screened during the 10th Panorama of the European film in Cairo this month.

Directed by Neasa Ní Chianáin and David Rane, the film won the Best Documentary Feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Best Film at the Visions du Réel Festival International de Cinema Nyon, and was nominated for another four awards, including the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.

It focuses on a middle-aged couple who both teach at Headfort Primary School, the only boarding school in Ireland for children ages 7 to 12, and captures their style of education and the school’s unique atmosphere.

The camera is invisible to the subjects, and both students and teachers seem oblivious to it and comfortable with being filmed, treating us to a candid view of school life.

The soundtrack is a mixture of an organ’s intense church music, and a gentler track by Eryck Abecassis that is somewhat reminiscent of fantasy films such as the Harry Potter series, especially when coupled with the stone building and massive gardens, adding a touch of “magic” with its high, airy notes.

We witness the children at different times of the day doing different activities, cumulating to an informal education that is both very modern and very much rooted in old and traditional ways.

The time at the school gives them plenty of time in the outdoors, playing sports, building forts in the forest, alongside time in the library with worn-out books, play rehearsals, and forming a band preparing for a concert. There are also the less grandiose moments in the dorms, with the children’s final bursts of energy before bedtime, and some telling peeks into their individual personalities.

Not once do we see an iPad, and only once is there a glimpse of a small electronic game.

A drone shot gives a sense of scale; the vast and rich greenery surrounding the 18th century estate, and the house of teachers Amanda and John Leyden on the school grounds.

It’s a sheltered haven, in isolation from the loud world outside. But it serves as a safe, nurturing place for the students to grow, build the foundations of their character, and begin life-long friendships.


On the first day of a new school year, the film starts in the home of teachers Amanda and John, a prelude to the warm and intimate approach the documentary will maintain.

Utterly dedicated and never completely off-duty, the two often have discussions together, at home after hours or on campus between classes, about how to handle certain situations and how to help certain students.

Their sense of responsibility on the impact they can have on the student’s lives is inspiring, and yet the school also instils a sense of responsibility in the youngsters.

“Your education is up to you as much as it’s up to your teachers,” another teacher tells the students on their first day. “It’s up to you to figure out what you think you could learn.”

One of the biggest takeaways is the personalized approach the school takes in caring for each student’s needs, as well as how the children themselves care for each other.

In the middle of the first night at the school, one of the students calls on a teacher to comfort his homesick roommate.

Within the panoramic approach of School Life, there is a focus on a couple of students who had different types of struggles, and how the teachers dealt with them.

There is the exceedingly shy Eliza, who barely says a word, walks quietly alone, hidden behind her long hair.
John teaches her the keyboard and gets her to join the school band, trying to socially integrate her.

“I don’t want her to live her life five yards away from what everyone else is doing. She’s very, very clever,” John tells Amanda.

Amanda herself takes an interest in Ted, who is dyslexic. She casts him in Hamlet, and makes sure he comes back to school after the holidays. She happily notes to John that she saw his friends helping him out with his readings.

A study in learning

Perhaps those most interested in this documentary would be educators or others passionate about teaching methods and alternative learning, and breaking out of the formal modes of traditional schooling.

For educational hardliners, two things could stand out as questionable: the amount of sweets given to the children, often as bonus treats, and their openness with subjects like LGBT issues as part of their curriculum.

In a class about morality and ethics, the teacher brings up same-sex marriage, asking the children their opinion on it and why they think Ireland voted to legalise it (in 2015).

One could ask if it too early for a sensitive subject like this, and yet the point really is how the school encourages students to think for themselves, about everything surrounding their lives, and how that process of critical thinking is part of an education not limited to memorising facts.

If we are to look at Headfort as a case study, there are no claims of flawless superiority, but only an authentic, sincere portrait and an exceptional example of genuine and practical teaching approaches, adapting to the world by staying grounded.

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