Billy Guedalla climbs aboard an adventurous learning project for struggling kids
Hackney Pirates is an innovative literacy project for children that grew out of a teacher’s frustration of seeing her pupils struggling to learn at school. After more than three years floating around between a number of temporary homes the pirate ship has finally docked in Dalston, East london.
Founding director Catriona Maclay, a former secondary school citizenship teacher, set-up the project in 2010 after becoming frustrated at seeing pupils fall behind through a lack of stimulation. However, despite the experience, she never lost her belief that education was an “optimistic and positive” career and decided to take things into her own hands.
After watching a TED talk about a programme in the US that helped motivate children to learn she came up with the idea for Hackney Pirates, and within weeks had set-up a pilot project and learnt on the go.
Two years on, schools and social services are referring children struggling with literacy in their regular schooling environment to the Pirates’ creative space where they are soon reading and producing multimedia products for sale.
However, it’s not all been plane sailing. To begin with the Pirates had no premises and very little money, but what they did have was lots of energy and enthusiasm, and crucially the backing of another local organisation, Bootstrap Company, that helps charities and social enterprises get off the ground.
Bootstrap provided them with a temporary space to run sessions from and funding for a paid member of staff. Maclay and some enthusiastic friends then set about raising much-needed funds; abseiling down the Bootstrap building in Dalston and taking part in a fun run dressed as pirates. Since then they have had various homes around Hackney, but always carried the enthusiasm of the adult and young pirates with them.
Finally after getting recognition from the council Maclay secured a five-year lease in one of its properties on a charity rate and are busily turning it into a “ship of adventures”. As Maclay explained: “We want to give the people who come here the impression that learning is a grand adventure and that’s why our shop will be called the Shop of Adventures and this building the Ship of Adventures.”
The shop, which has to be seen to be believed, has been decked out in the shape of an old wooden ship and will sell work created by the children and local artists of all ages as well as refreshments. It is due to open in late March once the refit is complete.
The basement, which opened at the start of the year, is where the children start their learning adventure. It has been designed – with the help of children – to give the feel of being deep underwater and features wavy shelves of books.
After referrals from social services and schools, young people are invited to visit the ship for a tour and asked whether they would like to sign-up. Catriona said it is rare for a child not to accept. Like her, they see the ship as “a place where cool things happen” and are eager to be part of the action.
The youngsters come along once a week after school for 2.5 hours of reading and creative work supported by a team of adult volunteers who give them one-to-one attention. The work they create is then turned into products that can be sold in the shop such as books or CDs.
These have included CDs of motivational speeches, a guide to Hackney, and a book of Hackney superheroes. Each child has the chance to contribute to these anthologies, which are then professionally produced ready for sale.
The Pirates believe that “like everybody, children work best when there is a real world outcome to what they do”. Maclay said Hackney Pirates is “like a publishing house for young people … constantly working toward a tangible, high quality outcome to their work” that “involves developing their literacy” as well as their confidence.
Her passion is infectious, and on visiting the Ship of Adventures you can clearly see what a great resource she and her project are for the children of Hackney.
For more information, including how to sign up as a volunteer, visit their website at www.hackneypirates.org.