How a simple ‘what if?’ question is helping Hackney kids do better in school

[A story I wrote for The London Community Foundation…]

Lots of great ideas start with a simple “what if…?” question. For Catriona Maclay, the moment came when she was talking with friends over dinner.

As a secondary school teacher in North London, she’d noticed how easily young people could fall behind in their studies. Catriona asked herself: what if you put those children in a learning space like nothing they’d ever experienced, gave them a fun, real-world project to work on, gave them lots of support from community volunteers – could you turn their lives around?

To try and answer that question, Catriona created Hackney Pirates, a charity that develops the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney.

After four years of hard work, fundraising, and life-changing success, the project now has a home of its own – a magical shop, café and learning space in Dalston, aptly called the Ship of Adventures.

Local young people aged 9–12 — known as pirates —   are referred to the project by their school or social services.  A typical visit will see each young pirate paired with a volunteer who will spend 45 minutes helping them with homework or reading books from the ship’s library. They then work together on the pirate’s creative project, which changes each term.

One project involved the pirates in making a CD of motivational speeches. They read a range of speeches, got a feel for how they were written and how they were best performed, and then wrote, performed and recorded speeches of their own.

Making a CD or creating a book is “really important because the children work towards real-world consequences,” says Catriona. “We noticed that a tangible objective is really motivating and exciting for young people.”

It’s a year since Hackney Pirates moved into the Ship of Adventures, a step that has been “completely game changing”, says Catriona. “When we were moving all the time, we were never able to completely focus on growing our social impact. Now we have stability, we are able to focus in a positive way, working with more children and allowing us to double the size of our learning programme.

“We now have shop where we can sell the young people’s work, underlining those ‘real-world consequences’. They now get to see their work, published on shelves every time they walk in here. It’s also our face to the world and a step towards putting our mission of learning adventures on the high street and promoting that anyone can come be a part of it.”

Hackney Pirates have benefitted from two rounds of funding provided by Dalston Bridge, a fund managed by The London Community Foundation. This helped to finance workshops for the pirates in their school holidays and paid for iPads they use for their creative projects and homework. It also funded some of the inspiring staff who’ve enabled the project to grow, to work with more children, and to make the most of its new home.

Impact studies show that 96% of the pirates’ teachers say children involved in the project show improved confidence, with 78% seeing better engagement with writing and attitude to learning. As for the pirates, 94% of them say coming to the project helps them at school.

The vision is for Hackney Pirates to become a community hub for learning, recognised as a place on the high street that has resources and volunteers to support young people, teachers and families — a kind of halfway house between schools and communities.

“Schools in Hackney are fantastic and we’ve seen incredible improvement over the years. We are not trying to replace school, but supplement it,” says Catriona. “We do the bit that schools are less able to do, and that’s give personalised attention to those who need it most, whether that’s because they’re statemented or there is some kind of intervention going on at school. We help with the building of confidence, perseverance and positive attitude to learning.”