A teenager from a state school in Hackney has been selected to debate for the English national team alongside pupils from Eton, Westminster and Dulwich - private schools whose students usually dominate the team.
Ife Grillo attends Bridge Academy in Hackney, where 44% of pupils do not speak English as a first language and 54% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. In contrast, the 17-year-old's four fellow Team England debaters all attend top private schools.
The five members of Team England will represent their country in Stuttgart, Germany, where the World Schools Debating Championships will be held this July.
Grillo was coached by Debate Mate, an organisation which teaches debate exclusively in schools with an above average Free School Meals rate. The organisation seeks to “tackle educational disadvantage” through debating, though Grillo shows that Debate Mate can do much more than that, with its students increasingly achieving national success.
In 2015 alone, two Debate Mate teams made the final of the Durham Schools competition, the world’s largest residential schools debating competition, where they faced an Eton team and a Dulwich team in the final; two teams made the final of the Birmingham Schools Competition; and one team made the final of the Cambridge Women’s Open, in which the secondary school students competed against top university teams.
“Finding out I made the England Team was one of the best days of my life,” Grillo told HuffPost UK. “Debate Mate getting involved in my school absolutely changed my life and I owe them a lot."
I didn't realise my life was about to change when I entered a @Debate_Mate all those years ago. An organisation truly changing the world ❤️— Mr Ife Grillo (@IfeGrillo) November 11, 2015
Grillo is Debate Mate’s first student to be selected for Team England. “We’re really proud of Ife, we’re really proud of all our kids," said CEO and founder of Debate Mate Margaret McCabe. "I set up Debate Mate to create social mobility with real impacts. Now we teach 6000 children a week."
Grillo is also one of the few students from an ethnic minority background to have been selected to debate for England. “Debating is very private school dominated, and by extension there are very few ethnic minorities. The reality is that that is often how things are at the top of any profession, and it taught me that sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone to reach success”, Grillo added.
The Championships were first held in Australia in 1988 with only a few countries competing, but now students from more than 50 countries attend, representing every continent, including teams from Chile, Palestine, Namibia and Pakistan.
In the past 10 years, Team England has been world champions twice, most recently in 2014. However, if Grillo and the rest of the team want to win again this year, they’ll have to fend off the current champions - Singapore.