SCHOOL LIFE, Ireland, 2016. Starring John and Amanda Leyden. Directed by Neasa Ni Chianain, David Rane. 99 minutes. Rated M (Coarse Language).
There is great deal of human interest in this documentary which has won a number of awards citing it has a pleasant experience about education.
Interestingly, the original title was the Latin, In Loco Parentis – in place of the parents.
The setting is Headfort School in an 18th-century estate and mention in County Meath, the last boarding school in Ireland for primary students. The student group is quite select, many of them having ambitions to get into prestigious schools in Ireland or, especially, Harrow and Eton in the United Kingdom.
While there is a great deal of emphasis on the students and some of them do become central to the story and action, especially the awkwardly dyslexic Ted, the silent Eliza, we recognise the students by their faces and behaviour rather than by their names.
However, the central focus is on two veteran teachers, John and Amanda Leyden. The film opens in their home, having a quiet breakfast smoke and conversation. They have been at the school many years – and John later tells a student that they were married in 1972, which puts him at the school for almost 45 years, married for almost 45 years. They have dedicated their life to the school. The current principal, Dermot Dix, was also a student there.
The number of students is comparatively small as is the number of staff. These are glimpsed, sometimes in conversation, sometimes with the children, but the principal focus is on the work of the Leydens. In appearance, John looks something of a rebel, very casually dressed, long hair askew, a touch of the cynical and the critical in his dealing with the students, yet very concerned about them. Amanda looks something of a dowdy grandmother. But they are deeply concerned about the students, do their best to form them in their studies and as persons. At home, the couple have conversations about the students, discussing their concerns and what they might do.
Amanda is principally concerned with literature. We see her in the library recommending books. We see her in the classroom. We also see her directing some scenes from Hamlet, intriguing to see the primary school students and their rehearsals, the extensive make up, the nervousness, the performance, especially of Ted as the ghost and of Hamlet. Amanda shares their anxiety as well as their exhilaration.
On the other hand, while John teaches maths and Latin, he is also interested (more interested?) in music. He is an old-time rock ‘n’ roller and there are various posters and indications of his fondness for David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. He encourages the children to sing whatever they can and whatever they like. He is also interested in the instruments, he himself playing the piano. Some play the guitar. And there is a young girl, Florie, who arrives in the school, having been a model but with some low self-esteem, who plays the drums. Ultimately, there is a performance for the parents at which the students excel.
There are some staff meetings, interesting to hear the principal and his assessment of the students and the ethos of the school.
At the end of the year, some of the students are overjoyed they get into their preferred schools. And there is a ceremony in local awards with the untalkative Eliza winning several awards and beginning to talk – and talk and talk.
There is no voice-over for this documentary. Rather, the audience is introduced to John and Amanda, seeing the range of students at meetings, out in the grounds, in classes, in discussions, music practice, theatre, cricket.
The director and the editor have chosen particular scenes, seemingly at random, to build up the kind of piecemeal jigsaw rather than any set piece.
By the end of the film, the audience has experienced a perspective on education of primary school children. The film will, of course, be of particular interest to teachers and parents if their children are in primary school.
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.