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Would-be model lets Blair down gently

Mark Jackson listened in as 'dead nice' Tony launched his new deal at a Sedgefield school.

Fourteen-year-old Melanie Hewitt doesn't give a damn about information technology. Computer games bore her and she wants to be a model.

That puts her at odds with the local MP, who is convinced that the country's future hangs on the young mastering computer skills and their application.

But Melanie is polite as well as good looking, and she made all the right noises when the MP, touring her school on Friday, singled her out for a chat. "I expect you're like my own children, playing with the computer all the time," he said, as the regional TV cameras homed in on the photogenic pair.

Melanie did not like to disillusion him. Nobody at Wellfield school, Tony Blair's local comprehensive in Wingate, County Durham, wants any flicker of discord with the Prime Minister. Far from it. Like Melanie, they think he's dead nice.

Friday's visit to Wellfield was Blair's first public engagement in his Sedgefield constituency since the election and marked the completion of a Pounds 5 million building programme at the school. Speaking off-the-cuff, more than 200 miles away from his advisers and the national media, he chose this occasion to set out a new deal - partly expressed in this week's White Paper, which Blair himself has done much to publicise.

The Government, he said, "will find the cash for investment in education in return for high standards and achievement." And Wellfield has provided a working model. "You're already doing it here," he told the gathering of pupils, parents and teachers. "Well done."

"We are offering a bargain between people and government, between schools and government and the bargain is this: we will find the resources for additional investment in our educational system provided that schools and local communities make a commitment to standards and to the achievement of quality and high performance that the new conditions really demand."

Wellfield is a 1,000-pupil 11-16 school serving eight former mining villages, including the one in which Blair himself lives at weekends. Formed from a merger of a secondary modern and a respected grammar, and split between the two sites, the school declined to the point where seven years ago only 15 per cent of the pupils were achieving five A-C grade GCSEs.

But four years' later, that proportion had doubled and the school was again grooming a sizeable quota of potential university entrants. Information technology was given a high priority, with Pounds 30,000 spent on computers last year alone.

Now the whole school has been brought together on a single site where new blocks have been added and the existing ones given a face-lift so that they look new.

According to John Burton, a retired teacher and Blair's election agent, education is the main topic of conversation between the two when they meet. Even though the last pit in the area closed 35 years ago, much of the traditional culture with its reverence for education survives. "You just can't get away from the subject around here," says Burton. "Tony couldn't avoid knowing all about it even if he wanted to."

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