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Condi creates a stir at school

US Secretary of State gives Blackburn pupils something to talk about. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

It isn't every day that the second most important person in the world comes to visit.

But while a crowd of 100 protested against the visit of Condoleezza Rice outside Pleckgate school, in Blackburn, last week, inside the US Secretary of State's approval rate was soaring.

"She was really nice, very polite and she had a big smile on her face. I can't say anything bad about her," said pupil Carren Stockman, 16, chairman of the school council.

"After she had left it was really hard to get back to lessons. Everyone was talking about it. It was so exciting. There was a real buzz around the school."

During her hour-long visit, Ms Rice was shown around Pleckgate's IT facilities and observed part of a maths lesson. She spoke to pupils about their school and work, and took part in a question-and-answer session with members of the school council.

It was Carren who asked the question everyone wanted to know: did the Secretary of State have any ambitions to be President?

"She said no but hoped to go back to university teaching once her political career was over," Carren said.

Jabbar Khan, 16, said the visit had put the school on the map. "As soon as she arrived she left politics behind. It was great that we were chosen to have such a high-profile person visit the school," he said.

"I told her that I hoped she didn't mind about the protest and she replied that it was part of her job. Now everyone knows that this is the school that Condoleezza Rice visited."

However, some pupils objected to her presence. Faizah Idris, aged 16, was among the protesters. She said: "I wanted to make a statement about US foreign policy. She came here because she wanted to be photographed with some Asian pupils, that's all. It was a publicity stunt.

"If I had had the chance I would have told her that what they are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq is illegal and not right, and they don't have permission to be there."

Another Year 11 pupil, Ismail Patel, who also protested, said: "I objected, but at the same time maybe it was a good thing she came here, because now she knows how people feel about what the Americans are doing in Iraq."

Pleckgate, a mathematics and computing college, was chosen because its pupil profile reflects that of the community, with most children coming from Asian backgrounds.

At first, the school was asked to host just Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary and local MP. But it soon became apparent that he would be accompanied by a high-profile overseas politician.

Robin Campbell, the headteacher, was angry that his pupils had been targeted in a leafleting campaign by anti-war protesters in the days leading up to the visit.

He said: "Parents and pupils have a right to express their views, of course, but it's disgusting to use children in that way.

"I met a small group of parents who were angry at not being consulted about the visit, but we were under strict instructions from the Foreign Office.

There were security issues.

"I will now have to do some work with sections of the community, but I am glad the visit went ahead. Debate about controversial issues is part of a democratic society."


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