Ed­u­ca­tion:

The Irish Times - - Front Page - LOUISE WALSH and SE­BAS­TIAN STEPHEN­SON

Head­fort

board­ing school in Kells, Co Meath is to close af­ter more than 70 years:

Ire­land’s only board­ing school for chil­dren aged be­tween seven and 13 years of age has closed af­ter more than 70 years due to fi­nan­cial chal­lenges that have been ex­ac­er­bated by the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

Head­fort School in Kells, Co Meath, had more than 100 chil­dren at­tend­ing as day pupils and bor­ders, as well as a Montes­sori school for three to seven year olds. About 25 staff were em­ployed at the school.

Neville Wilkin­son, se­nior mas­ter at Head­fort, said the school had been strug­gling fi­nan­cially for years and the Govern­ment’s de­ci­sion to close schools to help con­tain the Covid-19 threat was the “fi­nal nail in the cof­fin”.

“We have al­ways danced a fine line . . . The board was try­ing to raise money and to per­suade donors but when it re­ally kicked in, we re­alised that the amounts were go­ing to be too large. Liq­ui­da­tion was the best of the bad options,” he said.

‘Pretty sad’

“I think the staff are, on the whole, pretty sad about the loss of the place; sad­ness is the over­whelm­ing emo­tion.”

Cllr Sean Drew de­scribed the news as the “end of an era” and a loss to the lo­cal econ­omy.“Peo­ple are shocked and sad­dened all over the town by the break­ing news. I’m sure past pupils have great mem­o­ries of their time there and the teach­ing staff were a huge bonus to the lo­cal com­mu­nity.”

The school, based in a Ge­or­gian mansion dat­ing back to the 1760s, was the sub­ject of a film and TV doc­u­men­tary in re­cent years. Fees at the school were up to ¤18,000 a year for board­ers and just un­der ¤15,000 for un­der-10s. Class sizes were, on aver­age, be­tween 12 and 15 stu­dents.

Pupils were of­fered a wide va­ri­ety of sub­ject choices in­clud­ing Latin, scrip­ture and com­puter stud­ies. The activities of­fered in­cluded hockey, rugby, cricket, horse-riding, ten­nis and swim­ming. It is un­der­stood the de­ci­sion to close was made by the school board which rents the build­ing from the Head­fort Trust.

An­other ed­u­ca­tion source said Head­fort’s in­el­i­gi­bil­ity for

State fund­ing meant it was es­pe­cially fi­nan­cially vul­ner­a­ble.

“Board­ing for chil­dren of that age has been go­ing out of fash­ion. Schools like it in the UK are also un­der fi­nan­cial pres­sure and have been strug­gling to sur­vive. The coro­n­avirus clo­sures are tip­ping some over the edge,” the source said.

Strong links

The school tra­di­tion­ally had strong links with the UK, with many chil­dren pro­gress­ing to sec­ond-level ed­u­ca­tion in Eng­land.

More re­cently these links have been di­luted and many board­ers have gone to St Columba’s Col­lege, a board­ing and day school in Whitechurc­h, Co Dublin. Mr Wilkin­son, a former pupil at Head­fort, said the teach­ing com­mu­nity there helped to cre­ate a spe­cial at­mos­phere which par­ents, stu­dents and staff val­ued.

“You don’t come to work at Head­fort to get rich. You sort of get sucked in by the place, and staff felt like a fam­ily. The chil­dren were an ex­ten­sion of that.

“We of­ten found that kids would come back and the sort of kids who gave out about us, giv­ing out to them or pun­ish­ing them, came back and re­alised how much free­dom we were ac­tu­ally giv­ing them when they went on to sec­ondary school.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: DARA MAC DÓNAILL

Head­fort School in Kells, Co Meath is based in a Ge­or­gian mansion which dates back to the 1760s.

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