Shaken by speech day controversy

7th July 2000 at 01:00
SCHOOL awards ceremonies have traditionally been bastions of boredom, interspersed - if you were lucky - by the excitement of an old boy falling asleep on the stage. No longer.

One secondary has even invoked the wrath of Downing Street - entirely by accident, of course. Pupils at Bishop Auckland St John's RC in Durham had gathered for the ceremony, and were delighted when their mystery guest turned out to be local MP's wife Cherie Blair.

Things got even better as they chatted to Mrs Blair, asked after five-week-old Leo and discovered he was just outside with a minder. It didn't take much persuasion for the proud mother to bring him in, and no one thought about it when a teacher snapped a picture of the sleeping infant alongside a pupil and Mrs Blair.

Equally, no one thought about it when a batch of pictures was routinely sent off to the local paper The Northern Echo for its schools page. Te Echo spotted an exclusive and its snap was rapidly syndicated for national publication.

Then Downing Street intervened, warning the press against reprinting it, adding darkly that they did not want to have to prevent members of the public taking pictures that might end up in newspapers.

Pity embarrassed school head Brian Jones. "We did this in complete innocence. One of the reporters I spoke to accused me of being naive, but it's a different world up here."

Pity also John Arkell, head of the independent Gresham's School in Norfolk, who provoked a storm in the tabloids for his speech day thoughts. His crime? To warn female pupils that they might want more than a career and that they should think about ways in which they could combine it with children. A shaken Mr Arkell explained later: "I was suggesting they should just keep a weather eye on what they really want out of life."

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