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Reading, riding and arithmetic -- it's Ireland's poshest school

A new book tells the story of Headfort, once a colonial outpost in Co Meath. Kim Bielenberg reports

It is the only primary school in Ireland where children can bring along their ponies.

Headfort School near Kells, Co Meath, has its own stables. Ponies are allowed to reside there at a cost of up to €55 per week, so long as their owners make them available to other children.

Cricket has always been a favourite sport, Latin is still taught, and pupils are prepared for English public schools such as Eton and Harrow, as well as Irish fee-paying schools.

For much of its history, Headfort School almost cocked a snook at nationalist Ireland.

Until the mid-1970s pupils were not troubled with lessons in Irish history and geography, and the Irish language might as well have been Swahili for all the attention it received.

When a friend of the school made a mild suggestion some years go that it might be beneficial for pupils to have some familiarity with Irish history, the then headmaster, David Wild, dismissed the notion as absurd.

The boarding school in a country mansion has adapted and survived, now welcoming girls, and mixing boarders with day pupils. The once-Spartan dormitories are now heated, and duvets have replaced blankets

Lingard Goulding tells the story of this rarefied establishment and some of its notable eccentricities in a new book, Your Children are Not Your Children.

The author, a son of Sir Basil and Lady Valerie Goulding, was headmaster at the school from 1977 to 2001.

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The school founded by the aristocratic Headfort family in 1949 once had the atmosphere of a colonial outpost plonked in the middle of Co Meath.

Where else would pupils stop all other activities to watch the funeral of Winston Churchill, or a royal wedding on TV?

When it opened Headfort had eight governors, including five peers, two baronets and just one commoner, who happened to be the headmaster of an English public school.

Until the early 1980s, the school shared the vast mansion and a 900-acre estate with the Marquis of Headfort, a hard-drinking, snuff-taking friend of Imelda Marcos with a fondness for flying and shooting.

Lord Headfort had his own air strip just beyond the sports pitches. He liked to put off opposing cricket teams by flying in low while they were batting.

His Lordship hit the headlines in 1965 when he was implicated in a plot to shoot the British prime minister, Harold Wilson, on the Scilly Islands.

His erratic behaviour -- bursts of gunfire could occasionally be heard from his living quarters -- did not stop Headfort School thriving.

While the landlord of the school was wayward, the headmaster, former Royal Navy commander David Wild, ran a tight ship.

Goulding's entertaining account tells how regulations were strict in the early years. Silence was imposed upon the children before they walked upstairs to their dormitories at night, and they might not speak again until after "Grace" had been said the following morning.

Headfort followed its own curriculum, largely oblivious to the changing society that surrounded it. Pupils relived battles from World War Two on the playing fields at breaktime, and more scholarly pupils even had lessons in ancient Greek.

The quality of teaching varied enormously. There was a core of highly professional, scholarly staff, often educated at Oxford or Cambridge.

While these dedicated teachers maintained high academic standards, often in tiny classes, they were joined in the school by staff who could only be described as rank amateurs.

One past pupil described some of the teachers: "Characters came and went, some of their own volition, others booted or hounded out, habitual prep-school chancers . . . a few endearing eccentrics, several splendid incompetents, one or two monsters."

Parents surrendered their offspring into the care of the staff from the age of seven or eight to 13, and were not encouraged to play any role in their education.

In a message to parents in 1957, the headmaster said: "Too much visiting is not good, and the less a boy goes out with his parents, the more settled he will be.''

Goulding still believes boarding benefits children, even at a young age.

"Most children are tolerably resilient beings, and the boarding life inevitably teaches them independence," he writes.

The 21st century argument in favour of boarding schools is that many modern couples, and single parents, are too busy to ferry their offspring to sports clubs or music academies. At boarding school all these facilities can be found on the premises.

Goulding made several notable changes when he took over as head in 1977. Corporal punishment, which had usually been administered with a running shoe, was abolished, five years before it was made illegal across the State.

Parents were no longer seen as a noxious influence on a child's upbringing, and Headfort pupils were allowed to stay at home at weekends.

Dermot Dix, the present headmaster, says the school now has a softer, kinder atmosphere.

A former teacher at Dalton School in Manhattan, he aims to combine the best of traditional and progressive approaches to education.

In his own classes the head-master places a heavy emphasis on open discussion, rather than just covering the facts.

Dermot Dix says the children benefit from small classes, with an average of just 15 pupils in each form. Subjects are taught by subject specialists rather than class teachers.

Your Children Are Not Your Children -- The Story of Headfort School is published by Lilliput.

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