When a billionaire comes to your school, security is tight. So tight that pupils at Deptford Green School had no idea that the man coming to visit was Bill Gates.
The TV cameras were one clue that this would be no ordinary employee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and that the south London school would host the Microsoft founder's first visit to an English school.
"I was in the same room as the world's second richest man for two hours!" one pupil excitedly reported to his teacher after the visit on Wednesday. In truth, it was more like 40 minutes, with a long wait beforehand during which pupils practised their questions, were instructed to straighten their ties, not to yawn or pick their noses ("You're on the telly"), and listened to the school steel band play hits by James Brown and Gloria Gaynor.
The visit was a triumph for English teacher Keely Wilson, who had the idea to apply for a famous guest through Speakers for Schools, a charity set up by the BBC's Robert Peston. "I filled in the form and I was quite honest. I said we don't want a boring stuffy professor who doesn't know how to speak to teenagers," she said. "I got a call in the Christmas holiday from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation saying it could be the big man himself. Now that's an inspirational speaker!"
At the same time, the foundation had been looking for a school to visit, a stop-off on Mr Gates' way to the World Economic Forum: from Deptford to Davos. Each year, Mr Gates writes a letter detailing his charity's progress and goals; this year, he also wants young people to write to him with their ideas about how to change the world. Speakers for Schools put him in touch with Deptford Green, which has the bonus of links with a school in Uganda, where pupils watched the talk over the internet.
"I have often gone back to colleges and talked to people and said, 'OK, what's your idea, what are you thinking?' Much less have I gone back to kids your age," Mr Gates said to the group of 11 to 16-year-olds. "When you really want to think about these issues, you want to start quite young. And so, when someone says there's this really interesting school, really diverse, and they're trying to get well-known speakers in, I thought that would be a great thing."
Mr Gates praised the school's international outlook. "It's amazing to see how you're learning about the world at a younger age than I was. I didn't have that preparation around diversity at my school: there were no girls!"
The 56-year-old said his first computer program was written for his school, to work out the timetable. That set him on the path to riches and allowed him to establish the foundation, which focuses on tackling the diseases of the poorest parts of the world. "If I hadn't given that money to the foundation, I would today have more money than anyone else on the planet," he said. "I still have a lot." Eventually, however, 99 per cent of his wealth would go to the foundation, he said.
Opening the floor to pupils' questions, he was asked whether he would invest in space exploration, whether his goal to eradicate diseases responsible for the deaths of eight million children a year was achievable ("I'm an optimist") and why he had decided to hear young people's views on changing the world.
"It's always fascinating to me, reading your letters, to see the world through your eyes. I thought, boy, if they went to all this trouble to write me letters, it'd be nice to repay the favour," he said. Mr Gates received enthusiastic applause. The return to lessons was announced: a groan.
We are happy to share our thoughts with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Health and development affect us all in one way or another. Maternal health and high mortality rates in developing countries is an issue that needs attention. HIVAids and malaria are the biggest killers. Without proper healthcare, it is not possible for people to participate in development activities. Addressing health issues by focusing on cure, prevention and education can change the world.
Access to communications technology such as the internet will help improve education standards and information sharing on different issues. Global education partnerships bring together young people from all over the world to discuss development issues. Issues such as poverty, environment, pollution and HIVAids need to be discussed globally so we can find global solutions.
Munguriek Desire, Yvonne Ampeire and Lakwo Brian
St Kizito SS Bugolobi,
Dear Bill Gates,
I have several ideas that I believe would have a positive impact.
First, I would bring back an idea that was revoked by government: the education maintenance allowance. I do, however, have some modifications:
- students must obtain five A*-Cs at secondary school;
- students must be attending college;
- students can only sign up if they are 16.
Second, I would assign a notepad laptop to every pupil in secondary, provided that pupils sign a behaviourachievement and punctuality contract.
My third and final idea is to set up a careerjob adviser for young people to discuss volunteering, apprenticeships, work experience, etc. Young people are being unfairly treated in the work sector, as there is no company, or advisers, to guide them through the process.
Deptford Green School,
Lewisham, south London.