When is a boo not a boo? When Campbell says so

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The Independent Online

Never work with children or animals, they say, so Tony Blair was taking a risk when he visited Lilian Bayliss School in Lambeth.

Never work with children or animals, they say, so Tony Blair was taking a risk when he visited Lilian Bayliss School in Lambeth.

Sure enough, when the Prime Minister arrived to open new buildings at the south London school yesterday, the reaction was not what he expected. Booing could be heard.

Or could it? Not according to the Labour aides, including Alastair Campbell, who were there to ensure the right headlines. One steered journalists towards a group of pupils who insisted they had in fact been "booming"- rap slang for hooray. Gary Phillips, the headteacher, agreed.

"Different cultures celebrate in different ways," observed Mr Phillips. Other pupils testified that they had, indeed, been booming.

An expert on slang, Tony Thorne, who has compiled the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Contemporary Slang, lent some credence to the "booming" theory. It was, he said, a rap exclamation of "approval or delight". However, he acknowledged that some of the pupils could be "trying it on".

The Prime Minister and his Education Secretary Ruth Kelly were at the school to put education back at the heart of Labour's election strategy.

The school first gained notoriety when Shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin said he would beg rather than send his children there.

Mr Blair, though, sought to portray it as an example of Labour improving inner-city education. He was forced to couch his praise, though, with an admission that he, too, would have had "great difficulty" in sending his children there when it was languishing in the doldrums three years ago with only six per cent of pupils obtaining five top-grade A* to C passes at GCSE.

He insisted Mr Letwin's "extraordinary remarks" showed the "stark contrast" between the way Labour and the Conservatives viewed state schools.

"I think it is important to realise the criticism of Oliver Letwin was that he was offering the school nothing to aim for," he added.

Mr Letwin's remarks had been made in a year in which the number of pupils obtaining five top-grade GCSE passes had risen from six to 16 per cent. Now, two years on, it has risen again to 24 per cent.

Mr Blair said he would be "very happy" to send his children to the school now. "This is a wonderful school that's improved dramatically over the past few years," he added.

Mr Blair, who had been invited to open the new buildings a year ago, was given a ringing endorsement by Mr Phillips - who was also head at the time of Mr Letwin's remarks.

"Much of what we have done has been made possible by the policy of this Government," he said. "I believe that the commitment of the Prime Minister and the Government to schools like ours has been outstanding.

"Just as we have more to do at Lilian Baylis, so this Government has more to do and I personally hope they are elected to do it."

Of Mr Letwin's comments, he added that - while he was not supposed to be "overtly political" - they had given him a "unique insight" into the differences between the Tories and Labour. He said: "[Letwin's comments] had a huge impact on the morale of our students. It took staff and families a long time to rebuild that morale."

After Mr Blair and Ms Kelly had officially opened the school's new technology block, Mr Phillips refused to be drawn on Mr Blair's comment that he would have had difficulty sending his children to the school three years ago.

What is undoubtedly true is that, should either Mr Blair or Mr Letwin want to send their children to the school now, they may well have to beg to get them an entrance place. Three years ago only 30 parents had put Lilian Baylis down as their first choice school for their children. This year there were 400 applications for just 120 places.

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