Learning Account: Even Tony Blair wasn't let in until he signed the book

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The Independent Online
Maura Santos is general manager for the Mari training organisation in the south of England and supervised Tony Blair's visit to Mari's Southwark training centre.

The first I heard of the Prime Minister's visit was a call on Friday lunchtime from John Howell, the chief executive of Solotec - the training and enterprise council that funds some of our training. He said a "very important personage" wanted to come and look round our Mari centre in Walworth, south London, where we run training in computer-aided design and other IT skills. I told him I wouldn't agree to anything without knowing who it was and made a few educated guesses.

Planning the visit for Monday threw everything into a panic after a fairly calm week. I had been dropping in as usual on our London training centres, making sure the training all matched the required standards.

Our centre on the Aylesbury Estate in Walworth runs training for work courses for long-term unemployed adults and Youth Training for school- leavers, and also arranges modern apprenticeships for young people in local companies. We also run a course called "venture out", which provides computer link-ups from the centre to people who are housebound, either through disability or because they are caring for other adults or young children, and helps them pick up IT skills.

The centre is on the bottom floor of a tower block in what was once a row of shops until it was badly vandalised. It has proved incredibly popular with people here because it is local - there is a lot of reluctance to venture far from the estate because of the fear of crime.

On Friday afternoon, officials from Downing Street arrived to check out the centre. They had planned Tony Blair should only look round, but we persuaded them we had a room big enough for him to make his speech.

By 8am on Monday, we were all rushing around disinfecting the pathway outside the centre. Tramps tend to use it for purposes other than walking and it can be a bit unpleasant. No sooner had we finished than a team of council workmen arrived to do the same clean-up job.

Inside the centre, we had some juggling and rewiring of computer equipment to do to make a smooth path for the prime minister. We had been told he would stop and talk to three groups of people, and we chose Nathan, who has three job interviews after going on a computer aided design course, a smart 17-year-old called Chris who knows the Internet back to front and a group of teenagers who would chat generally about the centre.

Once the press started arriving, including French and Australian TV crews, we had to put one of our most stern trainers, Florence Fontaine, on the door to keep things under control. She even refused to let Tony Blair in until he signed his name in the visitors' book.

The prime minister was wonderful - he was really enthusiastic and put everyone at their ease, although Nathan was so nervous he forgot his own name at first. Mr Blair spent half an hour chatting to our young people, who told him they felt they had been let down by their schooling.

On the way out, he posed for photographs with his arms round the staff, and then he got mobbed by some kids outside. One of them handed him a piece of paper for him to sign his name and then pushed it back to him and said "Can you write `Prime Minister' so we know who you are?".