A film documentary by Neasa Ní Chainaín and Declan McGrath
A review by Lorna Gardiner, Consultant, Thinking Matters
Kenneth Branagh’s film ‘Belfast’ has received much critical acclaim
and box office success, but another recently released film based in the
city of Belfast is also worth a watch – especially for anyone interested
Young Plato is an observational documentary which tells the
story of a dedicated and charismatic school principal, Kevin McArevey,
who introduced the teaching of Philosophy as a way of encouraging
students to think critically and creatively, outside their existing
The film is set in Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in Ardoyne, North Belfast, a marginalised inner-city, working-class community, which continues to live under the shadow of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. Ardoyne made world headlines in 2001 when riots ensued as loyalists protested to prevent the pupils of the neighbouring Holy Cross Girls’ Primary School from making their way to school as they passed a contested area. The film illustrates how Holy Cross Boys’ PS sets out to support their students to think and live differently within this post-conflict community, in which violence, poverty, drugs and sectarianism continue to impact.
The main character, Principal Kevin McArevey, is presented as a visionary leader, who is determined to make a difference to the lives of the boys and their families. His energetic character, earnestness and confidence are clear throughout the film, but we also see glimpses of his personal angst as he addresses sensitive themes such as suicide and violence. The mood is lifted at times with natural occurrences of authentic Northern Irish humour in his day-to-day interactions and routines in which his love of Elvis is a feature.
We see examples of how Philosophy is utilised in the school to challenge the boys’ perceptions and to support their reflective thinking in addressing behavioural issues. The boys are encouraged to question not only their own personal views but also those of others, including their parents, with the overarching goal of challenging the societal norms and community narratives of prejudice and despair.
Unlike the romanticism of Branagh’s ‘Belfast’, this film does not present a manicured, sentimentalised view of the school or the community, it is rather a snapshot of real life. Whilst Kevin is presented as the main character, the undoubted stars of the film are the boys who are featured. These boys are not actors, and their vulnerability draws the viewer into engagement and empathy with the genuine emotions, frustrations, fears and tears of their lives.
For those with a particular interest in teaching Philosophy to primary school-aged children, there may be some disappointment that there is limited focus in the film of the approach being used by other teachers across the school, nor do we see explicitly how it is infused within the school’s curriculum provision. What can be seen though, is the school’s priority of using Philosophy as an integral and effective strategy in its pastoral care policy and provision. The film raises interesting considerations for school and system leaders about the potential benefits at individual and community/societal level of teaching young children to think philosophically, to ask bigger and deeper questions, to be reflective, and to listen respectfully and thoughtfully to the views of others.
I was privileged to view ‘Young Plato’s’ initial screening in Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, which was followed by a Q&A opportunity with the film makers and with Principal Kevin. Some important questions were asked during this session – How can we teach Philosophy in a segregated education system in Northern Ireland and in faith-based schools? Given the clear benefits for children and possibly for society, why is the teaching of Philosophy not prioritised at system-level by policy makers?
Overall, the response from this local Belfast audience concurs with that of a number of published film reviews – that it represents hope… hope for a future generation who may at last be able to break free from the chains of generational prejudice and the sectarian violence of the past and who will be empowered to think and to act differently.
n.b. The Philosophy Foundation, with whom Holy Cross Boys’ PS has
worked since 2014, are in the process of developing a free resource
pack for use by educators and facilitators when presenting the film in a
classroom, workshop or community screening situation. This will be made
available at - https://www.philosophy-foundation.org/young-plato-resources