Failing school's stars reach the summit

February 18, 2010

Mellika Myers is looking forward to meeting Gordon Brown so that she can “give him a piece of my mind”. His problem, she believes, is that “he can’t make us understand where he’s coming from”. In Myers’ opinion, the prime minister is misrepresented in the media and unable to be himself. And as a 16-year-old student at a failing school in one of London’s most derided boroughs, she knows what that’s like.

Fortunately, Brown will be able to benefit from Myers’ advice when he meets her and the three other teenagers who have been selected to represent the UK at the G8 summit for young people, J8, in Italy, starting today. Organised by Unicef, the J8 is now in its fifth year and brings together teams of teenagers from 16 countries to debate the G8 agenda, and present their conclusions to world leaders.

This year’s UK team comes from Haling Manor high school in Croydon, the south London borough that was recently the butt of a controversial Jimmy Carr “tweet” about knife crime and 1970s naffness. The school closes down this summer after poor GCSE results.

Myers is the only member of the J8 team born in the UK. The young people feel they have much to say about overcoming stereotypes, stating in their application: “Going to a school labelled as one of the worst in Croydon, we can see why young people don’t care about taking part in the world.”

“What people think about you is not always good,” says team member Harry Phinda, 15, who has been nicknamed “mini Obama” because he plays basketball and wants to become a lawyer.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Phinda wants to use the J8 to raise awareness about child soldiers in Africa, and blood diamonds. He is not adverse to a bit of “bling” himself, but says that his old image of plaited hair and baggy trousers meant he was often stopped and searched by police. He hopes to meet the real Obama as one of the J8 team will be selected for an audience with the US president – but the decision will be made by pillow fight.

Team founders Birzi Saleh and Sara Saleh (not related), both 16, suggested applying for the J8 after seeing a feature on the news, but did not believe they would win. And nor did their classmates. “They’d say: ‘What do you want to enter that for? You can’t win. Why are you better than the other teams?’” says Sara.

Confounding such low expectations, the team was selected because of its ability to articulate a range of international issues with relevance to their own lives. Birzi, whose family were lorry drivers in Kurdistan, cares about transport and the environment. Sara, whose mother was a soldier in Eritrea, wants to raise awareness about female genital mutilation and rape.

After the J8, the team will return for a more downbeat event that marks the closure of their school. “Winning the J8 shows that nothing about these kids can be excluded or stereotyped,” says Gita Trivedi, head of citizenship at Haling Manor.

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