Role models are hard to come by in Peckham

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The Independent Online

A group of youngsters take turns to ride the motorbike up and down Sceaux Gardens, one of the last of Peckham's post-war housing estates to survive the post-Damilola Taylor regeneration of this part of South London.

Dressed in the typical uniform of the street, baseball caps, trainers, long trailing jewellery, every few minutes they break out inexaggerated bouts of pushing and shouted threats.

One peels notes from a suspiciously large roll of cash. Asked what their opinion of Nelson Mandela, there was a mixed response. "He's just an old man," says one before disappearing into a car. Others are not so sure, "He was a freedom fighter, he's got total credibility says 17-year-old Onyeka Obiodu. "I haven't got any role models. You have to struggle to get where you want. That's just how it is," he adds.

Like many of his friends, the young Nigerian-born Londoner was brought up by his mother. "She is a brilliant woman. My old man doesn't care," he says.

Onyeka admits he has been in trouble with the police in the past, after getting involved in a fight, but he still wants to make his mark on the world. Next year he plans to study performing arts and wants to make it as an actor. His big screen heroes are Will Smith and Eddie Murphy. The reasons for admiring them are straightforward. "I like them because they are black," he says.

According to local youth worker and musician Jason Castro, for most young people in Peckham, the biggest hero is without doubt 50 Cent. "They say 'he's got bare money' - they like the fact he is rich and that he can get the girls," he says.

Mr Castro believes that society has until the age of eight, nine at the latest, to influence children into making the right choices. After that, the laws of the street take over and promising youngsters are lost to the battles of Peckham's notorious frontline - the streets around the bustling shopping area and its cornucopia of world foods - where local gangs do battle with rivals from nearby New Cross.

"Everybody is busy just trying to live, trying to put food on the table for their children. The things outside of that, such as teaching and inspiring - they haven't got time for that. U ltimately, the cause of the problems here is family breakdown," he says.

But, he warns, young people can see through superficial help from outsiders. "When they see people come here they know they have got money and, at the end of the day, they will go back to where there they came from."

Peckham is home to a dozens of nationalities. Some 23 languages are spoken at local schools, more than 60 per cent are black and most are poor. The area has reaped £300m in regeneration money in the past decade, a new library, a Damilola Taylor community centre and a glittering new school.

Yet while only 30 per cent of pupils at the £28m Peckham Academy pass five GCSEs at grade C and above, that figure has nearly tripled in the past three years. Crime, while still high by national standards, is also on the decline in the borough.

Jamaine Facey, 30, operations manager at the Fusion gym, worked hard to achieve his success. He says there are plenty of role models in sport and entertainment but in other areas of life, there is little for young black people to aspire to. "When it comes to the big money jobs, barristers, lawyers and chief executives, they all seem to be doing their own thing. They could do more to help black men and women here to get the opportunities they need."