Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

Inside Track Q&A: Dermot Dix, headmaster, Headfort School, Kells, Co Meath

Wednesday, 8 January, 2014
The Irish Times
Olive Keogh

Headfort is a private day and boarding school established in 1949. It has a staff of 30 and has 95 pupils between the prep school and Montessori.

What is special about your approach to education?

Headfort is an unusual combination of “traditional” and “progressive”. We give our pupils a very thorough grounding yet we are strongly motivated by the need to encourage pupils’ individual interests and personalities and to foster self-confidence.

 

What is unique about your school?

We have a specialist subject-teaching approach, so children may be taught by eight different teachers, all with a passion for their subject. This is unique among Irish primary schools. Headfort is also, to my knowledge, the last primary school in Ireland that prepares children for entry not only to the top-flight Irish secondary schools but also to leading UK schools such as Ampleforth and Harrow. We also run the school almost entirely on fee income (supplemented by fund-raising efforts). We receive no State subvention.

 

What specialist facilities do you have?

A fully equipped lab (we are one of the few primary schools in Ireland where children do practical science), specialist art and design rooms with a traditional art studio and iMac computers for design and layout work and a computer lab.

 

What are the fees at Headfort?

The fees range from around €2,500 per term for day pupils under the age of 10 up to around €5,000 per term for boarders over 10. Fees for the Montessori pre-school (age three to seven) start at €100 per week.

 

Have you produced any famous alumni?

There is a huge diversity amongst past pupils from squash champion Jonah Barrington to actor Robert Bathurst and chef Domini Kemp to jockey Charlie Swan. International cricketer Clare Shillington is a past pupil as is photographer Billy Stickland and our chairman, entrepreneur Marco Herbst.

 

What has been your biggest challenge?

There have been two. One was in 2003-04, my first year as headmaster, when morale was low and enrolment numbers were dropping. The second has been dealing with effects of the post-2008 economic downturn.

 

What has been your biggest success?

Getting the school back into equilibrium and seeing enrolment numbers climb.

 

Is there a conflict between providing children with a good education and making a commercial success of your school?

We are a non-profit organisation, so there are no stockholders looking for dividends. Still, the school needs to preserve a cushion of funds to allow it to weather difficult periods and a school’s wish-list is never completed.

 

Who do you admire most in business and why?

Vandana Shiva, an Indian writer and activist, who has worked for many years on issues of environmental justice. In recent years, she set up a company called Navdanya, which helps small organic farmers find markets for their products. To me, she represents a combination of success in business with uncompromising ethics.

 

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?

Not starting a carefully budgeted and planned marketing strategy soon enough after becoming headmaster. I believe passionately in what Headfort represents but many people around Ireland have never heard of it. I ran my own educational tourism business, An Irish Sojourn, in New York and Ireland for nearly 10 years. I remember my realisation in the early days that even though I had crafted a first-rate, unique experience; this on its own was of no use unless I managed to spread the word effectively. “Build it and they will come” is not an effective motto!

 

What is the most frustrating part of running a small school?

Most of the time, small is good. But the downside is that one cannot benefit from economies of scale so easily.

 

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?

It is very difficult to say what the school is worth and I would never be allowed to sell it even if I was tempted. Recently, we had contact from a group which is interested in franchising the Headfort concept, a far more appealing outcome than selling it!

 

In conversation with Olive Keogh