When the Prime Minister came calling

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Kilsyth Academy in North Lanarkshire was given a week to prepare for a high-profile public meeting, with Tony Blair and Donald Dewar answering questions from an audience gathered from the west of Scotland. Headteacher John Mitchell shares his diary of events leading up to the evening.

Thursday, March 2

After our weekly board of management meeting, held in period five, I returned to my office to find a message to telephone David McC (Education Officer).

"I've a bit of a poisoned chalice for you," he said. "Donald Dewar wants to hold a public meeting in the area next Thursday and he's considering using Kilsyth Academy."

"No problem," I replied, my mind racing through some of the implications.

Friday, March 3

Ann C and John R from the Scottish Executive arrived to look at our hall. I asked about audience numbers and was reassured there would be about 350 (the number of chairs in our hall, as it happens). We talked about parking, disabled access and so on. Ann arranged to phone me.

Monday, March 6

Ann C confirmed that the school is to be used. John R called to arrange a visit by sound and lighting engineers. I let my depute attend a meeting with contractors who are about to spend six weeks repairing concrete damage around our windows.

Just before 3pm a fleet of large cars arrived and about 12 people filed into the hall, where the janitors were setting up for a parents' meeting that evening. I was introduced to Angie from Downing Street, John B from Special Branch in London, David from Special Branch of Strathclyde Police and other officials. I began to realise that, important as Donald Dewar is, he was unlikely to merit so much security attention.

We chose a room (my office) for the "principal" to go before the meeting, considered an area for the media and discussed some emergency arrangements. David of Strathclyde is to return tomorrow.

I have still not been informed of the name of the "principal".

Tuesday, March 7

Several visits by the police. My suspicions about who is coming were confirmed. The Red Route, that is the route taken by the Prime Minister from the entrance to my office and then to the hall, was examined in detail.

Local police arrived to discuss parking, where officers would be stationed to ensure a secure area and where they could have tea and coffee. We discussed the likelihood of protestors and where they could stand, and an area where other members of the public could wait safely.

One of our principal teachers was contacted by the policy unit of North Lanarkshire Council and invited to attend a public meeting with Donald Dewar, together with two pupils, but had to reply with names by lunchtime.

A police inspector from Headquarters called to discuss security arrangements and refine decisions made by the local police. We walked the Red Route, examined the hall and the area where the PM could make an emergency exit if necessary. We arranged where the police could have tea and coffee.

I was warned to watch out for the media who would be based in the staffroom and to count the computers after they left.

A squadron leader from the bomb squad made a visit.

David of Strathclyde arrived to discuss further security measures and we walked the Red Route again. It was agreed that I could inform staff of the visit. I issued a memo in the late afternoon.

I discussed with the head janitor areas where improvements could be made: filling in potholes in the car park where the Prime Minister would arrive, weeding garden areas and picking litter off the grass, a coat of paint in the foyer toilets to cover recent graffiti. Some flooding due to blocked drains would mean guests having to walk on the muddy grass to avoid the puddles, so I contacted the Education Office. After an initial "Who's paying for it?", the officer agreed to contact property services to process the work. I got the janitor to contact the Sector Officer to speed up the process.

I did my bus duty at the end of the day and walked back into school. John R rang and we agreed the sound engineers could start work at 9.30am on Thursday after the S3 assembly.

I cancelled two meetings for tomorrow but kept the scheduled area lunchtime meeting with headteacher colleagues.

Wednesday, March 8

Arrived at school at about 8.30am to find the front drive coned off and so I parked in the overflow area in the playground.

The janitor confirmed the contractors will come to repair the potholes at the front and back of the school. They duly arrived and started drilling.

At 9.15am an enormous white vehicle bristling with aerials and a variety of blue lights drew up and a group of men in black jackets disembarked. The bomb squad was back. They quietly and efficiently checked the area and departed.

I completed a letter to parents about some asbestos removal, scheduled for this weekend.

I spoke to the director of education about the visit.

Knowing it was past publication date, I surprised the local press with news of the meeting.

The local police arrived again to look around the building and checked there would be facilities for 12 officers to get tea and coffee.

Had a phone call from David of Strathclyde to see if there were any problems and to arrange a schedule for Thursday. Phone call from John R to confirm some arrangements. Phone call from sound engineers about access and parking.

Had a discussion with our janitors about chairs.

I spoke to our auxiliary about coming in to serve teas to the media. She agreed immediately. Spoke to our admin assistant about someone to man the switchboard in case of a bomb threat or crank call. She volunteered to come in herself. Another office worker asked if she could help with the teas: agreed.

Discussed fire procedures with the janitor. He has arranged to have the bins emptied a day early.

Arranged with the computer contractors who are currently networking the school to replace ceiling tiles along the Red Route.

Thursday, March 9

Entered Kilsyth at my normal time to find all the streets leading to the school lined with cones. The main drive was similar. The front car park was coned off.

I brought from home blue and white cups, jugs and so on for coffee for the PM and his entourage.

Contractors arrived and cleaned the drains around the school. They also tried to clear drainage from the headteacher's washbasin, which has beaten DLO (Direct Labour Organisation) plumbers since 1985.

Ground contractors arrived to weed the flower beds and pick up litter. Joiners worked on emergency doors in the assembly hall to ensure they opened easily. Electricians replaced two cracked 13A sockets in the hall.

A roads department lorry arrived with cones and barriers.

A succession of police vehicles arrived. Two bomb squad vehicles arrived. I walked the Red Route again. A detailed search began of the main area to be used and a lighter scan was made elsewhere. Police dogs followed the searchers.

In the business studies department, one of the bomb squad jumped back in alarm when he found "sticks of dynamite". Fortunately they turned out to be candles being sold by an enterprise group.

When the search was completed, police were stationed in and around the building. I was asked if there were facilities for the police to have tea and coffee. The toilets in the foyer were locked and police refused access to the seniors who normally use them.

By 9.30am sound and lighting engineers had begun their work.

At 10am a group of protestors wheeling pushchairs walked up the driveway and stationed themselves outside one of our gates. I explained that nothing was happening until that evening. They were reluctant to believe me.

Further visits by a variety of police. I was asked if there was provision for tea and coffee for up to 40 officers.

I patrolled the corridors as usual at interval time to find policemen being chatted up by a variety of girls.

Numerous requests from staff to attend the meeting. The principal teacher who had been invited was told his application was too late and the school could not be represented. I confirmed that up to 10 staff and pupils could "probably" attend as long as they were named in advance and that I could vouch for them.

When I returned from lunch duty, an assistant head informed me that my wife had phoned to ask if I had taken the blue and white cups from home and, if so, why not the saucers? I phoned home and was instructed to collect the saucers and not to let down the west of Scotland. I duly did so.

I assisted in the hall with discussions about the chairs and pointed out that putting chairs against an emergency exit was not normal practice. The janitors managed to fit in 380 chairs.

I faxed out 30 route maps in answer to queries.

End of the school day.

A squad of police arrived. I was asked if there were facilities for tea and coffee.

The press officer arrived and asked about facilities for the non-Scottish media. He felt the locals would manage without refreshments but the bus full of English and foreign reporters deserved better treatment.

I put up No Smoking notices and declined to indicate where to find our one tiny smoking room.

I checked the staffroom for possibly offensive material that a paper might want to use to deliver its own message about teachers. I left up the collection of the world's sexiest men but removed the picture of Tommy Sheridan.

More officials and Special Branch officers arrived. Earphones were in evidence. I saw no signs of bulges on shoulders but am assured by a member of staff that they were there.

Guests started to arrive about 5.30pm for the scheduled 6.30pm start. I greeted those teachers and politicians I knew but the majority were strangers.

The hall began to fill up. John B of Special Branch walked past me and whispered out of the side of his mouth: "Twenty-five minutes." This was an indication of how late the schedule was running as the PM did interviews in Glasgow.

Another Strathclyde Special Branch officer introduced himself and asked to be shown the Red Route.

More officials arrived. More press arrived. The hall was now full, with many people standing. I was asked to provide an extra two dozen chairs. The janitors managed this by extending rows and narrowing aisles. Then more guests arrived and there were still about 50 standing.

As the scheduled time passed and the time gap had reduced to a whispered "Twenty minutes", I was asked to announce that there would be a slight delay. Then I returned to the foyer.

As I stood at the entrance I could hear the faint shouts of Section 28 protestors outside. In the distance I saw the first flashing blue lights. I went back into the foyer and whispered to my Special Branch chum: "Two minutes."

With a sweep the entourage arrived. The PM entered, followed closely by Donald Dewar. The local MP and MSP were introduced and I welcomed Tony Blair to the Academy. I showed them to my office where I had laid out the blue and white cups resplendent on their saucers. Tony took a coffee and stood drinking it - without using the saucer.

After the briefest of discussions, the platform party moved to the hall and I followed, taking up the only reserved seat.

Both Donald and Tony (I'm on first name terms now) answered each question fully and competently. Where there was a great deal of detail, Tony asked the questioner to leave hisher name and promised to respond personally later.

All too quickly the session was over. The entourage swept out. The audience followed. It was over.

I received congratulations from a number of people about how smoothly things had gone and was congratulated on the way the police had been kept supplied with tea and coffee. One officer complained of having started at 10.30am and he was still working. I pointed out I had started earlier and that my janitors had arrived at 6.30am and would not finish until midnight.

I returned home and by the time I had my first gin and tonic, the item had flashed past on the 9pm news.

Back to reality tomorrow. Hall to be set for S3 exams on Monday.

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