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'Pop Idol' pupil steals the show

The launch of North Lanarkshire's first music comprehensive was comprehensively upstaged this week - much to the delight of the organisers.

In a frenzied mixture of politics and show business, the assembled dignitaries, who included Scotland's First Minister, had to play second fiddle to Michelle McManus, a former pupil of St Ambrose High, Coatbridge, who two days before had been voted through to the final of television's Pop Idol competition.

The young singer's late arrival at the ceremony to launch her former school as a music comprehensive did not dampen the fervour of the hundreds of St Ambrose pupils, who gave her an ecstatic welcome, chanting her name and waving "Vote Michelle" flags. Nor did the dignitaries seem to mind, as all of them seemed more than content to revel in the joy of the occasion rather than speed off to their scheduled appointments.

Whatever the reason for the new star's tardiness, it had nothing to do with a prima donna mentality. Her greeting to her former teachers as she entered the school was a cheery "Hi everybody, how are you doing?" followed by an equally forthright chat to some pupils in the assembly hall.

She said it was "lovely to be back", described her time at the school as "the best five years of my life", thanked them for their votes, and asked them to make sure they voted for her in the final tomorrow evening, before being given an even louder send-off.

If she fails to win, it will not be due to a lack of effort on the part of Bernard Fagan, the St Ambrose head, who admits to having e-mailed every headteacher in North Lanarkshire canvassing votes for his former pupil. He described Michelle as "a product of North Lanarkshire, a credit to her family and school and a perfect antidote to boy bands".

When attention belatedly turned to the main business of the morning, Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, expressed support from the Executive, "with money and with encouragement", for North Lanarkshire's new music comprehensive. "It offers a fresh vision, adds colour and character to the comprehensive school, helps to raise attainment and creates more pathways," he said.

Michael O'Neill, the director of education, sympathised with Mr Fagan for having to "abandon" his school earlier in the morning but said that he was pleased to see the launch being "wrecked".

The pilot at St Ambrose, and the creation of the authority's sports'

comprehensives, Mr O'Neill said, "will change the face of Scottish education and represents the birth of a different kind of comprehensive school."

The council will invest pound;100,000 a year over the three years of piloting the concept, with the Executive adding another pound;40,000. This will be used to create enhanced facilities at the school, including a state of the art recording studio, and staffing to provide pupils with more opportunities to perform music and learn about different aspects of the recording industry. It will attempt to target pupils with pop and rock skills.

More pupils will be encouraged to consider a course in further education via a link with North Glasgow College and tutors from the college will be supporting the tuition and courses on offer.

The music comprehensive is in line with the three sports schools set up at Braidhurst High in Motherwell, St Margaret's High in Airdrie and St Maurice's High in Cumbernauld. They are part of the council's strategy to involve all pupils in sport and music, in contrast to specialist schools elsewhere in Scotland which only target talent.

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